2020 Women of the Year Awards: Change Maker

Our first annual Women of the Year Awards.

Credit: Credit: Peter Holst

Winner: Livleen Veslemes

CEO, BioLytical Laboratories

As a teenager in Quesnel, where she was born to Indian immigrants, Livleen Veslemes used to watch The Oprah Winfrey Show with her dad, a shift worker at the plywood plant. “I remember watching her, hearing her story and thinking, I can achieve great things, too,” says Veslemes, who spoke only Punjabi until she started kindergarten. “Those words have stuck with me since I was 16.”

Graduating from UNBC as a certified management accountant, Veslemes worked in a variety of financial roles, becoming CFO of Vancouver-headquartered Response Biomedical Corp. in 2009. Two years later, Luvo founder Stephen Sidwell asked her to join his healthy frozen-food startup, where she became one of the first employees, as head of finance and operations. I thought, Wow, this is going to be it,” Veslemes recalls. “This is what I’ve been preparing for all of my life, to be part of something that makes a huge impact on this world.”

As it turns out, there was more to come. Soon Luvo’s products were in thousands of stores across the U.S., and when the Vancouver company was handed off to new CEO Christine Day, Veslemes answered an ad for the CFO post at a small family operation called BioLytical Laboratories. Knowing little about the scale of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, she met chair Robert Mackie and was intrigued by the company’s Insti rapid self-test for HIV, the only such product with all five major regulatory approvals. “It really needed to be taken to that next level,” she says of Richmond-based BioLytical.

Given the grim statistics—32 million people had died from HIV/AIDs-related illnesses as of 2018, according to the World Health Organization—Veslemes saw an opportunity to empower those who are unsure of their HIV status. “The only way that we’re going to end this epidemic is if we test people, we get those who are negative to remain negative and those who are positive to be on treatment.”

Since joining BioLytical five years ago, Veslemes, who quickly became COO and was promoted to CEO and board member in 2017, has grown it to more than 100 employees. To date, the company has sold 17 million of its tests in about 60 countries. BioLytical, whose payroll will reach 140 this year, pulled off its expansion without any financing, Veslemes notes.

“While we’ve been doing good for the world, we’ve also built a sustainable, scalable business,” she says. “We’re contributing to the local community like we never have before.”

Finalist: Tiana Sharifi

Owner, Sexual Exploitation Education

In 2013, with a degree in psychology and counselling from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Tiana Sharifi joined the Children of the Street Society as a workshop facilitator. The Coquitlam-based nonprofit gave her training around sexual exploitation and human trafficking as it delivered presentations on the topic to 25,000 children and youths, giving them an opportunity to report abuse. “It really hit me to my core, seeing how prevalent it was in B.C. and Canada”, says Richmond-raised Sharifi.

When Children of the Street moved its programs to another organization last year, Sharifi went out on her own, creating Sexual Exploitation Education (SEE) to address service gaps and raise awareness with an innovative and holistic approach. Besides offering students education that targets the root causes of sexual exploitation and human trafficking, SEE provides followup consultation with school staff. Sharifi, who says her efforts have inspired collaboration among agencies, also delivers in-house training to law enforcement, nonprofits and school districts. Her work has impacted more than 50,000 people, she estimates.

Finalist: Supneet Chawla

Founder and CEO, Ace Trades and Technical Institute and Ace Community College

Supneet Chawla has taught thousands of men to be electricians, but old habits die hard in her male-dominated industry: “Every time I show up in the class, I get judged for the first 10 minutes.”

Chawla, who moved here from India after completing an electrical engineering degree, was an engineer for seven years. Laid off in 2007, she launched Ace Trades and Technical Institute (ATTI) out of her parents’ garage. Surrey-based ATTI now has 20 instructors teaching 20-plus trades in B.C. and three other provinces. This month, Chawla’s new Ace Community College, a 20,000-square-foot school for electrical apprenticeship training, holds its first classes. “The driving factor is success for our students,” she says.

Finalist: Maryn Wallace

Senior manager and client service leader, Deloitte Canada

Although Maryn Wallace’s career might look like a contradiction, there’s a common thread. The Richmond native first spent a decade in the nonprofit sector, becoming a prolific fundraiser. Her first job out of UBC, where she earned a sociology degree, was with the university’s Development Office. She then joined United Way of the Lower Mainland, working with high-net-worth donors.

Wallace moved to the startup world in 2014, when the Netherlands-based Thnk School of Creative Leadership recruited her as director of strategic partnerships. “Everything was through the lens of social impact,” she says of helping bring the school’s experiential learning program to Vancouver.

Thnk’s  B.C. effort didn’t pan out, but a local adviser, Deloitte partner Michelle Osry, enlisted Wallace to join the firm’s private business advisory group. Wallace, who also co-leads Deloitte’s Canada’s Best Managed Companies award program in B.C., says she took the job because she saw a chance to address Vancouver’s chronic shortage of head offices.

“Connecting back to my passion for philanthropy and community, if this city is not thriving and growing from an economic and business perspective, our people will struggle.”

Finalist: Leeza Zurwick

Owner, Happy Gut Pro

Leeza Zurwick put in 25 years as a special-education teacher in Castlegar, where she grew up in a homesteading family. “I always knew there was something more out there for me,” she says. For Zurwick, it was probiotic-rich water kefir. In 2017, after learning that the American Health Association had found a link between gut and brain health—and that probiotics aid the connection—she developed a home kit for the fermented beverage.

Today, Happy Gut Pro sells kits and Castlegar-grown water kefir grains online, plus drinks locally. The company, which Zurwick calls a social enterprise, has a handful of employees, two with disabilities; she plans to recruit more disabled staff as it expands. E-commerce is helping Zurwick realize her global ambitions: “Just last week, someone ordered 20 packages from Kuwait.” This year, she will start working with a co-packer to sell canned drinks across Canada. Zurwick doesn’t play up her recent Dragons’ Den appearance. “It’s me making my company grow,” she says.