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Lifting Others As We Rise

Written by: Jillian Climie.

At The Thoughtful Co, our mission is to enable recognition, opportunity and influence for women in the workplace. Through this work, we’ve seen the power of women coming together as a collective. To learn more about the impact of collaboration, I sat down with Heather van Munster, who recently launched Women on the Rise, a social impact organization that prioritizes the collective of women supporting women. In addition to this work, she is also Client Executive at IBM and Co-Chair of Victoria’s Women in Leadership chapter.

Tell me about your career path and how you’ve found success and confidence in where you’re at today.

I was raised in the hospitality industry. My parents ran restaurants, bars and truck stops in Ontario where I worked on weekends and after school. I did everything from washing dishes, to serving tables, to crafting cocktails, and having to cut off folks much older than me. I learned how to navigate difficult conversations, how to handle customer complaints, ensure guest satisfaction, and memorize and manage multiple orders. My attention to detail, ability to manage multiple things at once and team playing skills were birthed from those years. While I thrived in the hospitality environment, I could feel myself yearning for a career that I could settle into with regular hours.

A friend mentioned there was an opportunity at IBM and that I should apply. Knowing my experience was in the hospitality industry only, I didn’t feel confident in the slightest – but I still applied. To my surprise, I got the job. It was an entry-level admin role, but I kept showing up and doing whatever they asked me to do. I made it clear that if there was a stretch opportunity, I was ready. I knew I had more to offer than counting widgets and filing documents. And then came Steve Cuccione, a Senior Executive at IBM, who forever changed my career trajectory. He saw something in me that the others did not. He threw me into a Project Manager role on a province-wide project where I could finally demonstrate my skills. As soon as I could work with people my career took off. The soft skills I had acquired in the hospitality industry were instrumental in my success. I believe one needs to step out of their comfort zone, set achievable goals, put your hand up for those stretch opportunities and remember how capable you are.

How important has women mentorship and sponsorship been in your career?

Over 80% of the people I worked with were men, so I didn’t have a lot of exposure to women mentors. Those I did see had more of a masculine approach to leadership which I didn’t resonate with. I felt I had to look elsewhere, so that’s when I co-founded the Victoria chapter of Women in Leadership (WIL) with my co-chair Julie Potter. I was entering WIL’s six-month mentorship program, and I ended up cold calling Bev McPhee, an Executive Consultant whom I admired from afar, and asked her to be my mentor. Fortunately for me, she said yes. She’s been so impactful in my development ever since. She showed me that it’s okay to be your authentic self. She is a powerhouse yet grounded. She is strong and also not afraid to lead with her feminine side. It’s so important to find mentors whose leadership you resonate with.

As far as sponsorship goes, Steve Cuccione has been my biggest supporter, sponsor, and ally internally at IBM. I have benefited both personally and professionally in my development by his unwavering support and guidance. I am beyond grateful for these two humans who have believed in me and continue to encourage me to rise to new heights. They are both a big part of my intention to lift others as we rise.

How important has it been for you to connect with women in all areas, outside of just the corporate world?

The older I get, the more I know I need to connect with women in different areas and stages of life. The grind and hustle of climbing the corporate ladder can be exhausting. That is one of the reasons I founded Women on the Rise – to create holistic connection between all women. I want real connection outside of traditional networking events. Don’t get me wrong, I love dressing up in a power suit and connecting with fellow corporate climbers at those events, however, with Women on the Rise I want to go deeper than that. I want to foster collaboration, not competition. We are all working so hard in isolation, we need to be able to connect and share our struggles, fears, failures, and triumphs. We’ve come so far with women’s equity, but we still rarely ask for help. Because women can do everything, we are doing everything – at work, at home and in our communities. It’s messy and often looks very different from what we display on Instagram.

I know there are so many women who are fighting the same battles, have the same worries, fears and dreams and we need to be sharing that with each other. It’s a powerful thing when we gather together and support one another.

What are your goals with Women On The Rise?

The goal is to increase prominence and participation of women who are willing to step into their power and rise. As the founder and resident hype-women for women, my mission is to build community, facilitate connections and empower the collective to be relentless in our pursuits of exploring our full potential and fully stepping into our greatness.

Think of this as your “girls club” – but better. A woman alone has power; collectively we have an impact. We change the equation through collaboration. Women on the Rise is a place where we can collaborate instead of compete, celebrate each other’s greatness, have each other’s backs and most importantly lift others as we rise. It’s our duty as women to support women. We’ve been suppressed and pinned against each other for so long and I am here to change that narrative. It’s not a zero-sum game.

I see so many incredible non-profit and for-profit organizations working in silo to serve women individually and collectively. Equality takes hold when we band together.

What tips do you have for those in senior positions to help others rise?

If you are in a position of power, use it to empower others. Look for the light in others, where they shine, and help them amplify that light. Look for stretch opportunities that will help them grow and develop new skills. Introduce them to your network and share your knowledge. Be open and honest when having conversations on what they need to know or what they need to do to rise into the next position. While the corporate world can often be “sink or swim”, let’s teach others how to swim.

What impact do you hope to have on the world?

Balanced leadership. When I zoom out and look at the world’s problems, they are big, heavy, and complicated. We can feel powerless, angry, and sad. Or we can transmute those feelings into power and hope, knowing there is an opportunity for a new way forward. If more women were serving on boards, in decision-making roles and leading countries, we could resolve more of the world’s problems.

I often refer to the “Bird of Humanity” prophecy. The bird of humanity has two wings: the male and the female. For centuries the bird has only been using its masculine wing, and it’s now at the point where it’s getting angry and flying in circles. In this prophecy, the 21st century is when the bird finds its feminine wing. That visual gives me so much hope. As both wings of humanity strengthen, the more successful the flight of humanity will become. If we help the female wing expand, our world will heal. It’s not that women have all the answers, but if all genders are equal decision-makers, we can leverage all of our strengths. I alone don’t feel like I can change the world, but together, I know we can.

Now that I’m a mom of two boys this means that much more to me. I want my boys to see ‘my why’ in all that I do. I want them to know that their mom is working to build a better future for everyone.


To find out more about Women On The Rise, check out their Instagram here. To find out more about The Thoughtful Co, where we support women in negotiating their pay and advise employers on gender equity, book an intro call here.


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