Diversity Woman Magazine

FALL 2016

Leadership and Executive Development for women of all races, cultures and backgrounds

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d i v e r s i t y w o m a n . c o m Fa l l 2 0 1 6 D I V E R S I T Y W O M A N 37 "I would say I was really supported to study hard, get good grades, get an education," she says. "e message was certainly instilled that education was the path forward and certainly the way for my circumstances and life to be less challenging than what my parents experienced. But at the same time, I think when you grow up in challenging circumstances like I did, with a blue-collar background, there really wasn't emphasis on career." It was Gillis's exposure to gender issues in the 12th grade that changed her life course. Recently, she says, she was rifling through a box of high school mementos and found a note from her senior year civics debate, which resolved that "women are the same as men." (Presumably, Gillis debated on the side of "yes!") at sparked an interest that has never waned. While still in high school, Gillis became involved in advocating for the Char- ter of Rights and Freedoms, which included the Canadian equiv- alent of the Equal Rights Amendment. It was ratified in 1982. e United States is still waiting. "Being involved in that fight was a very important moment for me in recognizing that there was a role for women to step forward, and to advocate," Gillis says. "I was so inspired to real- ize that there was opportunity for women to be in positions of leadership in government—and to see that community-based advocacy could play a role in making change." After high school, Gillis earned a BA in political science at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and a MA in political science from York University in Toronto. She held a series of government policy roles for the province of Ontario, including working to extend benefits to same-sex partners. She returned to Nova Scotia to run for a seat in its House of Assembly, the equivalent of a state legislature. Although she lost in her bid for public office, that experience made a deep impression. "Growing up in Nova Scotia, it was a ful- fillment of a lifelong dream," she says. "Watching Hillary Clinton being nominated as the Democratic candidate for president got me reflecting. One of my strongest memories of that period in my life is how being a candidate had such an impact on young girls. I have so many stories of young girls telling me how I inspired them. ey saw in my candidacy what was pos- sible for them in life." Gillis next moved back into gov- ernment service before becoming a consultant in private industry, fo- cusing on organizational develop- ment. It was then that she received a diagnosis of breast cancer. "at was a pivotal moment for me," she says. "It was one of those experiences where you step back and assess your life and what you've accomplished—and how you want to spend your time. Being a breast cancer survivor led me to decide I wanted to go back to doing work that was deeply meaningful to me." In 2006, she joined Catalyst to lead Catalyst Canada. Since then, she has served as vice president, North America; senior vice president, membership and global operations (leading Catalyst's global growth strategy and expansion into India and Australia); and president and chief operating officer. By joining Catalyst, Gillis once again was doing meaningful work that connected to her long-standing interest in furthering the position of women in society, politics, and the workplace. Gillis's unconventional path from rural Canada to the top of one of the leading nonprofits in the United States has influ- enced how she, and Catalyst, approach diversity and inclusion. In short, there are many possible paths to success. She is a case in point. In high school, even college, given her modest back- ground, Gillis would not have been identified as a future leader. She wants to be sure that this message reaches far and wide. "I was not the usual suspect to be the CEO of one of the leading and most respected nonprofits in the world," she says. "I believe so much in the notion of potential and people, and the importance of looking in different places for that potential. We shouldn't make assumptions about people based on their circum- stance, whether that's class or race or gender. I've learned that if people are given the right kinds of support, they can achieve Deborah Gillis with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the 2016 Catalyst Awards Dinner; Gillis speaking at the dinner.

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