For Liz Choi, the pandemic provided a sort of validation for the work she was doing turning Robertson College into a purposeful online platform for learners across the country.
She has already been given the title of chief transformation officer at Robertson’s parent company, Education Canada Group, prior to the discovery of the coronavirus. Since then, the college has gone almost 80 per cent online. She is also the president of Robertson Online.
She intends to bring the concept of transformation to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, where she officially starts her one-year term as chair today, the same day she celebrates her 38th birthday.
"We had expansion plans at Robertson before the pandemic and we were implementing it," she said. "We’re bringing our more antiquated business into the year 2021 and going into the future."
While many post-secondary institutions scrambled to deliver their programs online, Robertson found a way to bridge the gap for workers who wanted to re-train but couldn’t afford to quit their full-time jobs to go back to school.
"I joke with people that I have made friends with the future," she said.
Choi, whose online handle is Liz Ferocious, is clearly not afraid to confront change.
She acknowledges the Winnipeg business community may have the reputation of being on the small "c" conservative side, but she sees the growth and vibrancy that exists here and wants to be encouraging of that.
"Yes, there may be a bit of hesitancy from some who may think it is almost easier to say, ‘Things are so uncertain let’s wait and see what happens,’" she said. "But there is also a level of excitement and energy and during the pandemic we saw many startups and new businesses opening."
She wants to impart some of her fervour in embracing the future to the chamber.
And it so happens that her term as chairwoman will coincide with the chamber’s launch of a new diversity, equity and inclusion movement, named CODE (Commitment to Opportunity, Diversity & Equity).
Loren Remillard, the chamber’s CEO, said he believes it will be an historic initiative for the organization.
"We don’t call it a program. It really is a movement,’ he said. "It will redefine our chamber."
The fact the launch coincides with Choi becoming the first female East Asian chair was not planned but it does send a strong message.
"I am very proud of my story," Choi said, but she then said in many respects it is no different than many other new Canadians’ experience.
But she wants to downplay the significance of her Korean heritage relative to her role as chair of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.
But having said that, she said a key priority for her personally and professionally will be to champion the work the chamber has started on diversity, equity and inclusion.
"I wanted to be a part of that," she said. "We are living in a time of great awakening. We are paying lots of attention to diversity. Embracing that and helping to embody that is a key thing for me."
Remillard makes the point that the chamber’s historical record — it turns 150 years old in 2023 — has not always been one that embraced diversity, equity and inclusion for all of those years.
"We have made some really great strides with our board, our staff and programming, but so much more needs to be done," he said.
Choi has never shied away from taking dramatic pivots in her life and believes the chamber is a good vehicle to show others that it can work for them, too.
When she was a young, international student— she graduated in 2007 — the rules at the time were that foreign graduates had to find full-time work in their field of education within 90 days of graduation or else their student work permit would expire.
As a graduate from the faculty of education, she found a teaching job with only days to spare. But it was a maternity leave position she was filling and when it was over she was offered a job at another school.
Unwilling to commit to a situation she was not thrilled with, she resigned, took a summer position as an administrator at the University of Winnipeg and benefited from a boss whom she said, "Saw something in me that I didn’t even see myself."
It launched her career as a project manager and business development specialist in the post-secondary world where she has continually advanced.
"I think the level of success I have achieved and the opportunities I have had access to are not typical for so many people coming to Canada in their youth," she said.
"I really hope with this exposure through the chamber, that I can be a visible leader so that many first-generation Canadians can look and go ‘That could be me.’"
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.