Jennifer Bernard is the President and CEO of Women’s College Hospital Foundation. Zvelle has been a proud supporter of WCHF for some time and when Elle first met Jennifer she knew hers was the first story we’d share in our In Conversation series.
Jennifer embodies the spirit of both Zvelle and Emily Stowe, the founder of Women’s College Hospital and first woman to practise medicine in Canada. Jennifer’s story is one of courage, adventure and changing the world with gifts you’ve been given.
Elle: You’re not a fit-inside-a box kind of person, which I love about you. Tell me more about that.
Jennifer: I think it’s because my parents immigrated to Canada from a third-world country and came with all the aspirations of all immigrants that they would make a better life for their kids. What I think about my experience that was a little different is that I had a mom who was very forward thinking and threw me in to everything that she thought was Canadian. Many immigrants shelter their kids within their communities and they live within their communities. We are from the West Indies and we had a small community here and my mom’s idea was that she came here so I could have all the advantages of living in Canada. I was under two years old when we moved to Canada and very quickly I was enrolled in to everything that she thought was Canadian. I skated, played hockey and swam. I went to away camp which was unheard of in our culture and what that did for me is that it really set the template for me being adventurous and trying new things. Going places where no one looks like me. From the very early point in my life I have often been the only one.
A lot of people feel uncomfortable in that space. That has been a space I have occupied my whole life. I think that has served me well because I had to really learn how to own my identity and not try to fit in. When you’re young there’s a lot of pressure to be like everyone else and to look like everyone but because I was the only one I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t look like everyone else and I couldn’t be like everyone else. When we went camping I remember, this is a very culturally sensitive thing, my hair got wet. And when you are a little black girl and your hair gets wet it changes. Everybody was so curious about my hair and why it was so different and why it wasn’t straight like everybody else’s. And that would have been a moment to really shrink but because my mother was such a powerful person and a strong advocate I was able to articulate that our hair is different and why it responds differently. And I think that has carried me throughout my career. I have been at so many events during my career where I have been the only person of color.
I’ve been able to do that and feel comfortable in my own skin. Sometimes in those situations you become an object of curiosity and making other people understand that while their curiosity is understandable, the reason they are curious is because their world is very small and that they didn’t come in contact with a lot of people outside of their world.
What’s been wonderful for me is that I have had very few negative experiences despite that because I used it as an opportunity to educate and share my belief that we all want the same things. As humans, we are all the same, we come from different places, we may look differently but we all want the same things and we all aspire to the same things. So how I arrived here is taking all of those experiences and honestly using them to my advantage to learn and to insert myself in places that had not been traditional for women of color to go or sometimes women at all.
Fundraising is run mostly by women, and 80% of the people who work in the not for profit sector are women, but at the very senior level it was dominated by men. Our donor base for transformational gifts was predominantly male, women actually give more than men but not the million dollar gifts. It’s been wonderful over the years to see that shift. So I have always been an advocate of being the best version of myself and also mentoring and supporting young women of all colors and all backgrounds to make big strides in leadership and preparing them for that.
Elle: What’s the one misconception about your job or the work you do?
Jennifer: Most people don’t know that working in philanthropy is very much like working in the private sector. You just do it for a different purpose. It is very much a business oriented work. It isn’t just soft work and acknowledging and thanking nor is it about begging people for money. It really is about aligning people’s values and incredibly strong mission and making a very strong business case for why they should invest. It’s the alignment and the sophistication of the work that I think people are often surprised by. And when I speak to people in the private sector about how we go about our business they are often shocked by how sophisticated it is.
Elle: What drew you to Women’s College Hospital Foundation?
Jennifer: Oh, everything! Everything about the mission and that it is about equity, is one of the most empowering things. The fact that it is about women.
I worked in the children’s sector for eight and a half years and no one ever asked why we need a children’s hospital so I am always shocked that people ask the question why do we need a women’s hospital. So, it’s bringing that enlightenment to society that we need, deserve and want our hospital and our own research; that it’s necessary. It’s about a platform of being able to bring in diverse communities, which is something Women’s is very interested in. That we protect and encourage engagement of diverse communities, whether they’re indigenous people or people that have been left out of the health care system (and also left out of donor relationships systems). We have a very monolithic sort of donor that has been part of the donor landscape and Women’s wants to change that.
So overall, it’s the mission of equity for women being number one, engaging those who have been left out of the health care systems, and innovation. I have to say it is a hospital that is very much moving the speed of healthcare business in a very holistic way. The fact that it has those two pieces together is incredibly empowering. Meeting people where they are and going outside of our walls, all of those things are what attracted me to women. It’s about everybody.
Elle: What are you excited about achieving at Women’s?
Jennifer: I think we have created the hospital of the future and I am expecting us at the foundation to create the foundation of the future. To be as powerful and as aligned as the innovative organization that our hospital is with the way we treat donors. What I am really hoping to bring to Women’s is not having a transactional relationship with our donors. We want our donors to feel part of the revolution that is taking place here at Women’s.
We want them to be valued and be part of the movement here. We want them to be partners and catalysts for change in the system and finding donors that are new to philanthropy and to celebrate those folks as well. What I am hoping to do is bring in communities that have been shut out of philanthropy and being as modern as our hospital is and using all the tools that are available to us to speak to our donor base and also the broader society about our values.
Elle: What inspires you?
Jennifer: Powerful women inspire me. Starting with my grandmother. I am inspired by people who are brave. Bravery inspires me. You have to be scared in order to be brave. I am inspired by people who take risks and try things that are really difficult. Like Emily Stowe, like you, like the women that founded this hospital. Like the people that work here now. Like the people who believe that the system can change. Those things inspire me.
I’m inspired by our youth. I don’t think millennials are going to destroy the world. I think they are very purposeful and powerful and they just think differently than we do. I think that the next generation is going to solve many of the problems that we created so I am a very optimistic person. I am inspired by the fact that I think I live in one of the greatest cities in the world where diversity is celebrated. We may not be perfect but I am a very proud Canadian and I am inspired by living in a society where many of us can coexist and have a real conversation about the things that matter.
Elle: What are you currently reading?
Jennifer: Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath”. I’m reading that right now and almost finished. It’s the wonderful tale about the underdog so it totally panders to my hero instincts and also what I am up against here at Women’s and what women of color and women are up against every day.
And having just started at Women’s I am reading a book by one of our lead physicians called “Better Now” by Danielle Martin who I think is one of the thought leaders in changing healthcare.
Elle: What are your five favorite cities? I know you are an avid traveller.
Jennifer: Barcelona, Venice, Chicago, New Orleans and New York.
Elle: What do you know for sure?
Jennifer: I know for sure that risk is the surest path to self-discovery and actual happiness. I know for sure now that it is true. I know for sure that the people you surround yourself with are the greatest perimeter of a happy life. I know for sure that love is real.
And on a totally vain note I know for sure that looking good makes you feel good!
Looking back at my journey, I think that timing is so important in anybody’s life. What has happened here at this point of my life that has brought me here is the wonderful intersection of timing aligning with my readiness and my own values. That’s what has caused this explosion in my life and this real moment of true transcendence for me where every day I feel like I am evolving.
Photography: Mark Binks