Pledge 1%’s #WomenWhoLead series celebrates female leaders who are paving the way for the next generation. While our featured leaders come from a variety of backgrounds and industries, they are united in their efforts to promote equality for all women in the workplace. We’ve asked them to share a bit about their journey to success, as well as lessons they’ve learned along the way.

What is your name and title?

Lisa Cole, Director of Programming, K2I (Kindergarten to Industry) Academy at Lassonde School of Engineering, York University.

Briefly (1-2 sentences) describe your current role.

Leading the K2I Academy at the Lassonde School of Engineering to create more equitable and inclusive opportunities for youth in Engineering, Computer Science and Earth & Atmospheric Science. K2I is working differently with innovative partners from kindergarten to industry with a shared purpose – to dismantle systemic barriers and to build sustainable programs that diversify representation in STEM professions.

How did you get here? Please share any quick stories from past work experiences.

I started my career as a secondary physics and science educator. I fell into teaching while finishing up my undergraduate degree in physics. I remember my conversation with Edith Engelberg in the halls of the Rutherford Physics Building at McGill at the time – a time when life circumstances sometimes takes you on a different journey – a journey not planned and unexpected. She said, “We need great physics teachers” and encouraged me to consider teaching. I guess this is where it started – 14 years in the classroom trying my best to figure out “teaching”. I think fondly about that time because I saw each of my students as my teachers – showing me how I should teach. I remember moments when I fell short as an educator and wish I could find them to apologize and make things right – and let them know that they have taught me valuable life lessons that I keep close to me now.

I bring what I learned in my physics degree to my work. I love understanding complex systems, dissecting apart its components, and thinking about the challenges we might consider tackling. I am forever curious and full of questions. I think this part of who I am brought me to new experiences that has eventually brought me to this work. My curiosity, questions, passion for STEM education, and commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion is what brought me to Lassonde to lead the K2I Academy work. My experience working Durham District School Board as a program facilitator in Science and STEM brought me insights to the needs of K-12 educators, elementary and secondary schools, and communities. Working at the Ministry of Education gave me insights into policies and government. I share this here because how I got here, has really been a journey and I am certain that the work we do at K2I Academy is shaped by this journey that brought me to this place at this time.

With an innovative Dean of Engineering, Jane Goodyer, bold enough to create the K2I Academy, I feel privileged to do this work alongside my role model and mentor.

In your opinion, what’s the #1 decision or move you’ve made that has helped advance your career?

My journey to where I am today is dedicated to the many people that I have had the privilege of working with. I would say my career is built on networks and the generosity of people and organizations that have fueled my curiosity and entertained my questions. I think the first time I reached out beyond the walls of my own classroom was when I applied to the EinsteinPlus Teacher workshop at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. The application was sent to me 1 day past the due date and it was by chance it was sent to me. I remember emailing Greg Dick (he may not remember that I did back then) to see if it was too late to apply. Thank you Greg for taking a chance and letting me submit my application. I think it was there I met mentors and collaborators which I still connect with today.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned this past year?

Being adaptive and flexible is so important. People first. Be actively listening and be ready to be responsive. Be kind. Be present. Be open.

What’s the number one challenge you face as a woman in your industry?

There are lots of women in K-12 education. There are not many women, however, who would have studied physics and I have memories about that time – as a young adult trying to figure out who you are, what you might want to become, and feeling the pressures of academic performance and not finding the mentors you might need. Coming back to the present, what I do know is that holding a titled leadership role is an interesting space for women still. I am still new to this role and feel so fortunate to be surrounded by a team and community at Lassonde where I feel completely accepted for who I am. I think strong examples are needed and modelled.

Do you have any mentors? What does mentorship mean to you?

I feel so fortunate to have met many people who I would name as mentors. I have colleagues who continuously support and provide guidance in the areas that they have expertise that I don’t hold. I have leaders who have always created the time and space to be my sounding board, to remove barriers and obstacles that get in the way of work, to create opportunities that push my thinking, creates the space to develop personally and professionally, and actively listen to provide thoughtful and meaningful feedback.

Mentorship is so important for professional growth. It allows people to develop skills with guidance and support. Creates the brave space where you confront tensions and ideas as a rehearsal before you must perform. Meaningful mentorship often is reciprocal. I have learned that the most rewarding and meaningful mentorship relationships are when you feel that you can also offer something in return. Becoming an advocate is also part of mentorship. To be willing to support behind the scenes but also publically when the mentee requests and/or needs it is also important. I only hope that I can become the kind of mentor that others have been for me.

What advice do you have for women who are just starting their career?

Create a network of people around you. Reach out to people and connect with those who you are most curious about. Ask questions. Put yourself out there. Seek out advisors, advocates, and mentors that will support you as learn about who you are, what you want to do, and how you wish to pursue your goals.

What is one thing companies can do, big or small, to help create an environment that advances women into leadership positions?

As I build K2I Academy, we are designing onboarding processes that will be grounded in equity, diversity, and inclusion as a key component of the learning. It is important to teams to learn together that creates the culture we need. Anti-racism and Anti-oppression work starts with the individual but only becomes a part of the culture if this work is done together.

What is one thing you hope to accomplish in the next year?

As we build K2I Academy, my colleague, Michelle Tsui-Woods, Associate Director of Operations and Development, will be building a team to work with innovative partners to address systemic challenges in K-12 STEM education. We are interested in seeking out innovative partners who will do this work with us.

Is there a cause that is particularly close to you? If so, why this cause and how did you get involved?

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in STEM will always be important to me. I believe that the complex challenges in our society need diverse people in STEM in order to create the innovative solutions our world needs. We know we need to do better and many have been doing this work – yet we still face challenges in certain fields of STEM. Creating more equitable opportunities will remove the system barriers to access STEM post-secondary studies. For this reason, I am committed to the work of K2I Academy. We will continue to work with educational partners to bring STEM to life in schools and create innovative programs including work-integrated learning programs that for underrepresented students in STEM, including Women, Black Youth, Indigenous Youth, 2SLGBTQ youth.

What do you like to do outside of the office? Any interesting (or unique) habits or interests?

I am a mother of two amazing kids and partner to a life partner for over 25 years. I enjoy knitting, drawing, and watching movies (especially with popcorn).

Are you reading/listening to anything interesting at the moment? Please share your most recent favorite book or podcast!

I have just finished reading, How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and started to reread Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

What’s been the one (or two!) things that have helped you navigate this past year? Any tips or tricks to dealing with remote work?

I have learned to get to the things I can, become better are prioritizing, and learning to become more adaptive. I’m not sure I have really figured out the work-life balance many people talk about. My work and personal missions are so interconnected that I find it hard to disconnect at times – especially now when I know that the work I do could mean so much to others. I am fortunate to have a life partner and family who keeps me grounded and helps me to remember to take care of myself.