Roundtable: The heads of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade talk life, leadership and shaping the economy

We sat down with CEO Bridgitte Anderson, chair Radha Curpen and incoming chair Juggy Sihota for a wide-ranging Q&A

If you want people to recall an event from the past, it can help to offer them a notable cultural touchpoint. For example, the last time an NBA team played a regular season game in Vancouver was on April 14, 2001. On that date, the #1 song on the Billboard 100 was “All for You” by Janet Jackson. Spy Kids topped the worldwide box office that month.

Here’s another one: the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade was founded in 1887, 10 years after recorded music was invented.

Because the board has always appointed its chairs in one-year terms, the roster of names who have led the organization features some high-profile figures, such as Brandt Louie, Carole Taylor and an extensive list of men with two initials in their first name, like H.R. MacMillan.

Today, the GVBOT looks much different than it did back in 1887, but the purpose for which it was founded—“to protect the interests of merchants, traders and manufacturers, to advance the trade of the area and to promote the advancement and general prosperity of Vancouver”—hasn’t changed all that much.

On a sunny day in August, we met the three current leaders of the GVBOT at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver to discuss everything from the struggle businesses in the region are currently facing to tips on unwinding.

BCB: The Board of Trade showcases so many great leaders through different events and conferences. Do any stand out to you as particularly memorable?

Bridgitte Anderson: It’s really hard to choose one or even two people. We have incredible business leaders on our stage all the time, whether they have a national, international or provincial profile. We’re fortunate to host the best and the brightest. I take something from every one of them across all sectors—entertainment, sports, forestry, life sciences, government.

BCB: I had a feeling you wouldn’t name anyone specific.

BA: Well, it would be hard to choose one. In the four years I’ve been at the Board of Trade, I can think of something from every single speaker; not one particular speaker or event stands out in my mind. I feel fortunate every day.

Juggy Sihota: Okay, I’ve got one. Michelle Obama. I was with my mom. And Bridgitte interviewed her!

BA: I didn’t include her because that was before my time! I did interview Michelle Obama, but it was a year before I was CEO. I was on the board of directors at the time. It was a professional and personal highlight.

JS: It was phenomenal.

BCB: What was so memorable about it?

Radha Curpen: The vibe in the room, before and after. And I think just the question of “What can you do to elevate the work environment for everybody?” It was really about the energy, the positivity. That positive energy stayed with us for a while.

JS: The pride that it was the Board of Trade bringing her here in Vancouver. And the run up to the event, the anticipation, the excitement. It was fully inclusive—everyone was a part of the experience. It was like going to a Prince concert. I like going to concerts a lot and one of the best I’ve ever been to was Prince in Vancouver, because he brought everybody into his party. It was so much fun—you felt like you were a part of it whether you were by yourself or with 10 people. Michelle Obama had the same level of inclusiveness with the way she engaged with everyone in the room. We were elated when we left. For me, that experience was wonderful. And Bridgitte did a phenomenal job of interviewing her.

BCB: We’re asking a bunch of prominent B.C. leaders about the best leadership advice they’ve ever received. What comes to mind for you?

RC: You choose to be reliable and trustworthy. Everything you’re going to build is on trust. It’s about showing up, being reliable and continuously doing it in every area you say you will. And making sure your actions align with your words. That’s something I learned from my grandfather—he used to put me in his lap and get me to read the newspaper in both English and French and he would give me advice about life. After he died, my dad continued that.

BA: For me, keep learning and growing; be authentic; have integrity. All those values are part of my upbringing. I look at my mom—she’s had a lifelong passion for education. That’s something I take to heart as a leader: there’s always an opportunity to learn and grow more. And trust your team. If you have a good team and you trust them, you’ll be successful. 

JS: I agree with that. One of my favourite philosophers is Friedrich Nietzsche and a quote of his is “Never trust a thought that occurs to you indoors.” So, whenever I’m faced with a challenge or complex issue, I’m going to go outside, go for a walk, think about what’s going on in an expansive way versus sitting inside in an office or board room. I need to be outside and contemplate it.

Brigitte Andersen. Credit: Evaan Kheraj
Brigitte Andersen. Credit: Evaan Kheraj

BCB: You’ve all been mentors. How do you create better leaders? How do you interact with them and how do you foster that connection?

BA: I think that needs to be flipped on its head a bit. As a mentor, you have the opportunity to learn from somebody who is probably right where you once were in your career but with a different, new perspective. I’m fortunate to be learning from them. Younger people especially have so much to teach us because the world has changed so much.

JS: I love that, flipping it on its head. When you do that, you bear such a responsibility and accountability for what you do. Because sometimes they’re going to take our advice! If it doesn’t work out, that’s a responsibility we have to bear. Any of those engagements, especially with young people, you’re like, I hope I tell it to you right! If it doesn’t go right, I’m not going to sleep at night. When you can help somebody, and they make it easy for you to help them, you feel so good.

RC: When you serve somebody, help somebody, it’s the most fulfilling feeling. I’m the kind of person who goes out of my way to buy something at a grocery store or butcher because of the relationship I have with that person. “Why are we driving so far away?” Because we’re doing something for that person. That’s what mentoring is: a level of caring for that person. And you feel so fulfilled when you do that—then you can go out and conquer the world.

BA: I wouldn’t like to kid myself and say that I’m a mentor to my children, but at 20 and 22 years old, they are my best teachers. What they’re experiencing is so relevant and important. I learn from them every single day. That’s the mindset I take from that relationship.

JS: Can I just add to that? I don’t have children, but I have parents. I love them; anything good that I have comes from them and I’ve always respected them. But as I’m getting older, this is a cliché, but wow, they have such great life experience and wisdom. When I was 22, I maybe didn’t think they were the smartest, wisest people around. Now I’m going to them with all kinds of problems. It’s the perspective and the experience that they have. One thing with mentorship and leadership—everything is about the quality of the relationships you keep and grow and cultivate. They should really focus more on how to make and keep friends in school, that should be part of the core curriculum that they cover.

RC: And it’s the people you surround yourself with. You’re going to learn so much from them and they reflect who you are as a person.

Juggy Sihota. Credit: Evaan Kheraj
Juggy Sihota. Credit: Evaan Kheraj

BCB: On that note: in a couple words, how would you describe the ideal employee?

JS: Someone who can lead with both head and heart. That’s essential when we talk about strong leaders.

RC: The willingness to work with gusto. You must have the fire in the belly and that gusto. And curiosity, which is about the pursuit of knowledge and excellence.

BA: The willingness to learn and grow. Being a good human and a good communicator. Those are things that I always look for.

JS: And honestly, someone who’s had it hard. I think that when you’re hiring an employee and working with them, it’s going to be tough. There will be high performance expectations and it’s going to be stressful. So someone who’s had it tough, never had anything handed to them, they’re scrappy and curious and they’ve come out on the other side of it. You want the grit reservoir that’s going to be required to be successful.

BCB: And how do you find out that information in an interview setting?

JS: You ask them about their life. I always say to [prospective candidates]: Tell me about your life. Let’s not go on about your resumé, I’ve read it. Tell me about your leadership story and your life’s story, that’s where you get it.

BA: That’s where you find out if someone’s a good human. Are they going to go to bat for their teammates? Are they someone you can count on? You don’t want to hire jerks. You’re asking people to come to work eight to 10 hours a day. You want to create a great environment for people to work and spend their time. To do that, you need trust and great relationships.

RC: I agree completely with Juggy. The people coming in to our firm, you look at their CVs, they’re going to be high-ranking students in law school and all of that. I put that aside and say, tell me about your life experiences. Tell me about your choices. We are a product of our choices. We are who we are today because of the choices we make.

JS: When they tell you these stories, when there’s a good ending, what are you looking at? You’re looking at resourcefulness and resilience, and you’re looking for a path to success. If you’ve seen it and built it, you can repeat it. I think that’s important.

BCB: Experts have been predicting a recession for the province for almost a year now. How do you think B.C. businesses and individuals will find the next few months?

BA: Juggy and Radha can give some specific perspective from their industries and sectors. But broadly speaking, I’m really concerned. There’s no question that Vancouver suffers from an affordability challenge for families and individuals. But that applies to businesses, too. We recently released a report in May around the costs of doing business. It showed $6.5 billion in government-imposed costs to business. The fabric of our communities are small and medium businesses, people who work every day to put food on the table, to provide jobs for their families and for young people. They’re being hammered by additional costs right now. On top of that there’s soaring inflation and rising input costs. There’s a breaking point for these businesses, particularly small and medium ones, and I’m very concerned. It’s one of the things I’ve spent a lot of time on over the last few months, talking to all levels of government about. Because I think that while there is a recognition around affordability challenges for individuals and families, I’m not sure that governments are connecting the dots on additional costs to businesses. Businesses keep people employed: those are jobs, livelihoods. I’m very concerned and I think government has a responsibility to lower the costs to businesses.

JS: Hear hear. I think punitive regulatory policies are really impacting the ability of businesses to be successful. It’s exactly what Bridgitte is saying. If you don’t have successful and thriving businesses, you don’t have successful and thriving communities. And that’s what we need to have as our goal. What we believe in from a Telus perspective is social capitalism. We believe that businesses bear a responsibility to do good in communities where they actually want to see outcomes for themselves as well. It’s hard to do that when regulatory policies are punitive to you and are stressing and squeezing you. It’s difficult to be a social capitalist organization in an environment like that.

RC: And we live in a global world where people are looking to businesses to do those things. We’ve lived through it in the last number of years. We’ve seen people and business taking care of communities. It’s all about stakeholder engagement. Businesses have come to the table and have done a lot and will continue to do so.

JS: When we talk about the Board of Trade, we represent all businesses. Small, medium and large businesses are equally important. I think it’s easier sometimes for larger businesses to be successful and weather the storm. Small and medium businesses don’t have the flexibility or runway.

BCB: Are there any industries you’re concerned about more than others?

BA: I’m particularly concerned about retail and hospitality. They’ve been more impacted by COVID and some of the issues around mental health, wellness and some of the disruption on the streets in Downtown Vancouver. I have a friend who’s a member of the GVBOT who has spent thousands of dollars every month on their store. They’ve replaced windows on an almost daily basis sometimes. They’re trying to employ 70 people but at some point, the costs pile up too high and changes have to be made. The people who suffer are the employees. I’m also concerned about some of our larger members around regulatory frameworks, whether in forestry or energy. It all comes back to being a competitive environment, and this jurisdiction isn’t as competitive as others. We need to attract and retain businesses. To do that, we need to make changes to make it easier for businesses to operate.

RC: For any kind of regulatory barriers, governments and businesses need to come together to see how we can remove them and dismantle them to allow for the future we want. When we talk about alignment, action and words, that’s one where we need some alignment.

BA: Many of Radha’s clients work in the energy and mining sectors. It’s not acceptable for them to have to wait a decade to get through environmental assessment processes and permits for government approval. Those investors will put their dollars elsewhere.

RC: We have people who say, We could invest in Canada but we’re not. Governments talk about renewable energy, but what steps have been taken to get to a process that’s responsible but is also streamlined to allow these [projects] to happen? That’s what we want to discuss.

JS: We want to draw and attract more businesses to come into our province and country, as Radha is saying. And if they choose not to because of the punitive environment for them, then we’re missing out. That means that jobs and the economy will suffer and the province will suffer. And, worse than that, companies that are headquartered here pick up and leave. It’s not conducive for them to operate in the margins they want.

BCB: When you talk about the punitive environment, you’re talking about permits and restrictions as you mentioned, but also taxes as well?

BA: Some of the biggest pain points are taxes—the employer health tax has meant $4 billion from businesses over the last couple of years. There are additional mandatory days off, stat holidays, sick days, corporate tax. In addition, we suffer from one of the greatest shortages of industrial land in North America. Businesses here that are looking to expand—if they can get through a regulatory permitting process—there isn’t always the available land they need. I look at the life sciences sector, for example: many of those companies are looking for wet lab space, and there’s a distinct shortage. The agtech space is another one. Food security is one of the critical issues in our communities and agtech needs changes to be able to grow. So they’re looking at other jurisdictions within Canada and outside of it. Eventually, that will catch up with B.C. That’s something that needs immediate attention.

JS: We haven’t talked about the impact of AI, especially on jobs. We need to be ahead of that, and we’re already super behind as a collective. I could tell you lots of great things [Telus is] doing as an organization to harness it and retrain employees to do other things and so on. We’re capable of doing that because we’re a large organization. What about a small or medium business—what are they going to do? And they need the efficiency the most. As a large organization, we’re thinking about how we can help the smaller ones so that they’re not left behind. I can think of numerous industries that this is going to be catastrophic for if they’re not prepared for it.

RC: It’s going to impact everything we do.

BA: It already is.

RC: Yes, the future is already here on that.

Radha Curpen. Credit: Evaan Kheraj
Radha Curpen. Credit: Evaan Kheraj

BCB: In a couple of words, how would you describe the two people sitting next to you?

BA: Do I have to only use two words? That’s not ample. Dynamic, smart, caring, kind, connected. I’m so fortunate to work with both Radha and Juggy, they’re my mentors, sounding board, friends. And incredible business leaders. For them to contribute to the GVBOT in a voluntary capacity when they already have such full careers and personal lives, I don’t take that lightly. I feel incredibly fortunate. I can’t just choose two.

JS: I love what you said, Bridgitte, right back at you. Two words: powerful and inspiring.

RC: Impactful, driven. They’ll continue to impact the world. This is just the beginning.

BCB: In the next year or so, what are some things you want to accomplish in your personal and professional lives?

JS: I dedicate my time where I can have the most impact. Now, in my life, creating better health outcomes for people has been at the core of what I do. And I’ve been doing it on a domestic basis for some time. With the acquisition of LifeWorks in the fall of last year, we’re now global, we’re in 160 countries. That’s a great opportunity to make a much more meaningful impact than we are currently. That’s where I’m looking.

One aspect of business that we didn’t talk about is that a lot of people are expecting more from their employers—more care, more pay, better retirement benefits and better health care. Public systems cannot withstand the demand. Employers are becoming able to provide more care, especially in the mental health space. That’s the opportunity in front of me for the next few years.

RC: Helping businesses navigate the uncertainty of what we’re facing right now and about to face with everything from the energy transition to food scarcity, supply chain issues, environmental and human rights issues. All those complex things where businesses are having to make commitments or take stands. All those things they’ve never been called upon to do and will be now. And finding innovation in the way we practise law with those things in mind. On a personal front, always having an impact on the people closest to me.

BA: One of the first things I did when I became CEO of the Board of Trade—which I have to tell you was a bit of a dream come true—it was something I said to my girlfriends about two years before the job came up. They said, What’s the dream job you want to have? I said, The only job I want in Vancouver is the CEO of the Board of Trade.

JS: Nice.

BA: So, when I was appointed CEO, one of the first things I did with our board of directors was in defining our purpose. Our purpose is to lead, unite and champion business so that our region is thriving and it’s the best place to work and live. That’s what gets me up every single day. We have more than 5,000 members. So understanding what their pain points are and leading around advocacy that will help make businesses stronger and thrive. Uniting is important. We can’t be a lone wolf; we need collaboration with other associations and the full business community to get the ear of government. And you really have to be out there championing businesses. That’s what I see over the next few years—having more impact and influence so that government understands the challenges businesses are facing and will make some change to policy so that businesses can thrive.

JS: Come to B.C., hire in B.C. and buy in B.C. would be a great outcome from the GVBOT‘s perspective in the next couple of years. We’ll get there by leading, uniting and championing.

BCB: How do you unwind?

BA: I hike. I go to the trails in North Vancouver or Pacific Spirit Park with my dog and friends, get outside to nature. I just bought an e-bike yesterday—I’m like a kid in a candy store with all the places I can explore. Getting outside, spending time with nature and family and friends grounds me.

RC: I’ve lived in New York, Toronto, Winnipeg, Atlantic Canada. I’ve spent a lot of time in Quebec. I’ve never lived in a city with so much beauty around me. Walking the seawall is like a blessing. I also do a lot of reading. My husband does more reading than me—we have a book club where he reads to me.

JS: That’s nice!

BA: I love that.

RC: I’ll be doing things and he reads me a chapter. And then I read to him. 

JS: I’ll let you know when I unwind.