Aspiring leader aims to build capacity in others

Photo by Dan Toulgoet

Many of us dream of making a difference in the world, but not all of us act on it. Vancouver’s Emily Chan, a recent graduate of SFU’s Leadership Essentials Certificate program, is that rare person who’s always ready to take action. Despite completing her BA in sociology only six years ago, her résumé already overflows with a wealth of experience in non-profits, working on everything from child advocacy to community development. Since 2007, Emily has even served as a volunteer leader with Girl Guides of Canada, an organization she first joined at age 5.

Today, she continues to strive towards a better world through her work at B.C.’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner. As an engagement advisor, Emily describes her role as “building relationships with people across the province,” whether by leading discussions and workshops, strategic planning or responding to new human rights issues as they arise. “It’s rewarding work—a bit of everything, which I quite enjoy,” she smiles.

When Emily first applied to the SFU leadership program in 2020, the pandemic was in full swing and life was in a holding pattern. She was still in a contract position and her volunteer work had been paused, so she felt ready to sink her teeth into something new: leadership training. “I had previously held leadership responsibilities in organizations where I volunteer, but not formal management experience in my work,” she explains.

She selected the one-year Leadership Essentials program for the flexibility to learn online, part-time and on her own schedule. The program’s unique approach to leadership through a lens of equity and decolonization also drew her in, she recalls: “I knew that would be interesting as a leader, but also just as a person—to be a good person in the community.”

While equity and decolonization were new areas for some classmates, Emily says she’s fortunate she’d already had some experience through her work and volunteer life. “But I still found the program helped me to understand how to communicate those concepts,” she says. “To see them explained in a way that’s tied to leadership was really useful to me. I think that wherever you are in the journey, the program can be valuable.”

She recalls a particular lesson on intersectionality that focused on one individual who faced a variety of different barriers. “It helped me to take these very big and complicated topics and see them through an individual person’s eyes,” she says. “Seeing it explained so clearly from a personal perspective was really valuable.”

Emily also appreciated the discussions with classmates, which allowed her to trace the class’s collective development, as well as her own, over the 10 weeks of each course. Since completing the program in 2021, Emily reflects that what she took away wasn’t what she’d thought she needed. In some ways, it was something better.

“I’d gone in thinking I want to manage someone in the future, so I need the skills to be able to do that,” she says. “But what I left with was a more holistic way of thinking about leadership and breaking down stereotypes about traditional management.”

She also learned the value of slowing down: “I find that if something’s complex, it’s because people are complex—and that’s a good thing. It deserves the time it needs. So, if I’m leading a project, I encourage others to take a breath, and think about where we want to go and why before jumping into it.”

While she still aspires to a management role someday, Emily says she discovered something else through the program. “What excites me is not necessarily being a manager,” she says, “but being in a role that can help build capacity in others.”

Whether she’s supporting colleagues at work or mentoring the next generation of Girl Guides, one thing is certain. If true leadership isn’t about a job title, but about helping others grow, Emily is already a leader.

By Kim Mah