YWCA CEO Janet Austin on finding work with higher meaning

On being motivated by public service and a need to effect change

Janet Austin bounces into the café pumped from a mid-morning workout—one of the perks of being CEO of the fitness-centric YWCA Metro Vancouver. “It’s part of the culture,” she says, laughing, as we settle down at Finch’s Market in Strathcona. “If you can’t do that when you’re at the Y, then there’s something wrong. It’s also—this is my excuse, anyway—good role-modelling.”

Heading to the gym during off-peak hours may be a minor example, but it epitomizes the 58-year-old’s preternatural desire to spend time wisely. After “a period of introspection” when she realized the time she was most proud of was that spent volunteering, Austin was determined to be in roles where she could make a difference.

For more than a decade, she’s been at the helm of the YWCA, which now boasts 375 employees and a yearly operating budget of $22.5 million. Previously, she was executive director of Big Sisters of BC Lower Mainland for four years as well as working for the province’s social housing unit. (Austin, who is the new chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade, helped set up BC Housing’s policy that puts women from violent homes at the top of its waiting lists.)


1. “I have lunch a lot at the Hotel Vancouver (900 W. Georgia St., Vancouver; fairmont.com). They’ve been great to the Y.”

2. “It’s interesting to see people developing culinary skills, so I like having a meal at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (101-1505 W. 2nd Ave., Vancouver; picachef.com).”

3. “I’ll often order a salad and latte–I only drink decaf–at Terra Breads (1605 Manitoba St., Vancouver; terrabreads.com) at the Olympic Village near where I live.”

“I’ve always been motivated by public service,” she says as we pick at walnut salads. “It’s important to me to do work that is socially meaningful and at the Y you have that immediate enforcement that you’re actually improving conditions for individuals and broadly.”

As testament, our meeting spot is bookended by the Y’s Downtown Eastside projects: the 30- year-old YWCA Crabtree Corner Community Resource Centre for marginalized women and families, and the upcoming YWCA Cause We Care House—the latter of which is slated to open in 2015, with the Y having raised more than 80 per cent of its $10-million contribution. Despite the current philanthropic climate (competing with the province’s hospitals and galleries), Austin believes the campaign has worked because of its inclusion of other services such as a library along with supportive homes for single mothers and children.

“We have been successful at framing new, creative opportunities and what’s interesting is that it is more appealing to donors because of the mix of uses,” she says, adding that the Y needs to cover the capital cost upfront so it can operate on rent revenue and additional fundraising.

Another of Austin’s drivers includes the YWCA’s yearly Women of Distinction awards, part of the organization’s push for equality for women and to see more females in the C-suite ranks. While she acknowledges that there are more examples of women occupying high-profile positions, she says it’s not evidence of broad-based social change, referring to Grant Thornton research from 2012 that showed an actual decline in women in senior management.

One way to reverse this, she offers, is access to good childcare, as well as shifting expectations within families on which partner interrupts their career when they have children. “One of the challenges is the issue around work-life balance and domestic responsibilities. Women have moved into the professional world, but men haven’t moved into the domestic sphere in the same way,” says Austin, allowing that her own retiree husband Ashley Chester is a “great cook” (they met at BC Housing).

Being a woman in a senior leadership role, Austin—a graduate of English and classics from the University of Calgary—certainly touts the ability to effect change. “It’s just liberating,” Austin concludes, “to find my own voice.”