As much on the technological, entrepreneurial or human levels, we can say that our expert Vanessa Cherenfant is changing the world one project at a time. Indeed, this digital transformation specialist has contributed to innovation at large Quebec companies like Bombardier, Createch and Officevibe. Also an entrepreneur, she founded a startup using AI to modernize the tourism industry. And throughout her career, Vanessa has been actively involved in community projects to advance diversity and inclusion in the tech community.
Vanessa Cherenfant: A Path of Involvement
Leaving Haiti in 2003, Vanessa Cherenfant continued her engineering studies in Quebec at the Polytechnique de Montréal. With a dozen years of experience in digital transformation, she has collected her share of honours (Prix Jeune Femme en Technologie and finalist for the Prix des Femmes d’affaires du Québec.)
Meanwhile, Vanessa Cherenfant continued to be involved in promoting greater representation of the different groups that make up our tech society. For example, she is the co-creator of the Angles Morts podcast, a “series of discussions with leaders to build organizations that are fair, diverse and inclusive, presented by RBC.” Likewise, she is involved as a mentor and sits on the Board of several organizations to advance the cause of diversity. In particular, she is involved with Technovation Montréal “to inspire the new generation of technological entrepreneurs.”
Interview: 10 Questions for Vanessa Cherenfant
1 – Change seems to have propelled all your career up to now. Is it the driving force that guides your actions?
I definitely have a thirst for impact. Rightly or wrongly… But yes, I think what motivates me a lot is to be able to make a difference in people’s lives: at work, through technology or on their career path, by allowing them to have equal chances of success. Bringing people beyond is what drives me.
2 – Why are diversity, inclusion and equity at the centre of your involvement?
Essentially, it’s a question of justice. When you look at it, you think: “Why wouldn’t we all have the same opportunities, and the right to the same chances of success? Why, from the start, should there be barriers? These barriers, which are somewhat unjustified, prevent advancement or access for certain groups of people. So, basically, it was just the question of justice that got me involved me from the start.
As an engineer, I first started my career working on factory floors at Bombardier. Afterwards, in the tech world, I was often the only woman in a lot of those circles, and certainly the only black one. So, it always struck me, and I couldn’t understand why.
“One thing I fundamentally believe is that talent is evenly distributed across the world.”
But one thing I fundamentally believe is that talent is distributed evenly across the world. No one who has the monopoly on talent: no gender, no race. So, this lack of representation, whether of women or of ethnocultural groups, struck me a lot; I felt compelled by it. And I also think that when something bothers us, and we think we can make a difference, why not make it, whatever the scale?
3 – How did your life path from Haiti to Quebec influence your involvement?
There’s certainly a part of my involvement that comes from there. I grew up in a country where the question of representation didn’t come up. In terms of minority access, these were issues that I was not necessarily aware of or that I didn’t see. My father is black and a surgeon, my uncle is an engineer and a businessman, my mother is a director of an NPO; our president is black… I had representative models in all spheres, women and men.
So, these were things I took for granted. It was a privilege that I wasn’t even aware of, being surrounded by strong role model. Arriving here, the lack of representation was certainly a shock. I found it unfortunate that young people couldn’t see themselves reflected throughout society in the world of high management, and in science and technology professions that shape the future, with models to refer to. There weren’t as many people that they could look at and say, “I too, could become an engineer, doctor, entrepreneur—or whatever—like them.”
So, this made me quickly realize that there was something to be done here. As I said earlier, talent is fairly distributed across the world. For me, the question never arose as to whether lack of talent was the issue. Obviously, the talent is there, because I grew up among people who had exceptional careers, and also jobs that they embraced, in which they performed. So, I quickly realized that it was about access. And that was where we could make a difference.
4 – What are the obstacles for people from under-represented groups in technology?
Although a lot of effort has been made over the last year, we’re still navigating a mostly homogeneous environment.
So, in a way, it’s a matter of bias, which can lead to two preconceptions. On the one hand, you might think that the talent is not there. On the other hand, when someone is hiring, it’s easy to give a chance to people who look like them, who live in the same circles as them and in whom they easily recognize themselves.
If no one goes beyond these preconceptions, a minority will inevitably come up against these entry biases. And you should know that biases are not just at the entrance, in the interview process. They can follow us throughout our career development. It can be seen in the opportunities that we have and don’t have access to, whether it’s mentoring or informal sponsorship. Assignment on high visibility projects can also make a difference in getting promoted. And the famous pay inequity issue can also follow us throughout our career development.
5 – Have you seen changes for equity in the world of technology in Quebec since your arrival in 2003?
Certainly, in the last 10 or 12 years, the number of initiatives that have taken place, first for bringing in more women, is significant. There have been several initiatives to make the community aware of the crying lack of women in technology.
It’s clear that the environment is more aware of the existence of bias in various phases of the work world. For example, biases in the job interview process or when the time comes to assign projects that would provide opportunities for reaching higher echelons, as well as biases that limit the possibilities of reaching leadership positions.
Many “Women in IT” initiatives have taken shape in the form of mentoring, awareness raising and training, first to increase gender parity. And in the last couple of years, particularly with the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a greater sensitivity to the issue of ethnocultural diversity.
“It’s as if women were a monolithic group.”
Five years ago, we talked about women. But it was as if women were a monolithic group. We weren’t necessarily talking about the diversity within this group. And we weren’t talking about the obstacles when we looked at the whole group. So today there is a greater awareness of the barriers that different sub-groups face. And there is a much clearer will among some organizations to address these issues. This is true in technology, but it is also true in all industries. There is a lot of effort and awareness work being done to continue moving forward in this regard.
6 – What would you say to someone who wants to reach their full potential?
Something I often say is that no one knows what you’re capable of better than you do. So, you should never let other people—be it parents, teachers, managers, whatever people around you—impose limits on where you want to go, and can go. It takes hard work to get there, but it’s entirely up to you.
“No one knows what you’re capable of better than you do.”
7 – If someone wanted to make a difference, how would you advise them to get involved?
There are many ways to make a difference. One is getting involved directly with under-represented groups as a mentor. So, you can open doors, perhaps be a role model, provide accesses that they don’t easily have. And the results are direct. By mentoring individually, you can make a difference in one journey, ten journeys… The gratification is almost immediate through the actions you take. And there is another type of long-term change, which is organizational change, which you can get involved in if you are in a position of influence internally. Or you can also leave it to professionals.
So, I believe that if anyone wants to make a difference, depending on their role in an organization, the best way to start is to reach out to under-represented groups, whoever they are, first. You can thus offer your time and your privilege to help them move forward.
The Habitly app is the project of The Terrific Team # 19, one of four Technovation Montreal teams—in which Vanessa Cherenfant is involved—which qualified for the semi-finals of the Technovation World Summit.
8- What are the pitfalls to avoid when advocating for equity in your community?
I would say my number one tip is not to forget yourself in this. Because it’s a heavy burden to bear if you’re the only person in an under-represented group advocating for change. Constantly focusing on how we could do better is difficult.
First, you have to understand that this is a journey. And it’s a long journey. We’re talking about organizational change, change management, even at the level of people, of the perceptions they have. So, don’t expect these changes to happen overnight. This is a long-term project. It’s all the more important to take care of yourself on this journey.
And you also have to learn how to choose your battles. It’s okay to choose your battles even when certain situations make you uncomfortable and you would like to intervene. It’s also okay to take a step back and come back to it later if you want to.
9 – Who has been your greatest inspiration in getting involved in this cause?
I grew up watching my parents get involved in various areas for justice, with groups that didn’t have access to opportunities. For example, I think of my father who chose to work in the public sector in Haiti. Thus, he offered care to communities that didn’t have access to it.
My mother also worked with groups of people living with HIV. She was involved in breaking down taboos around sexually transmitted diseases and looked to minimize the barriers these individuals faced.
So, I grew up with people who were involved every day in improving the lives of others. They offered their talent to improve lives. So, inevitably, it made me aware of the difference we can make on a daily basis. The fight is different, but it’s still a quest for justice and fairness. And most importantly, it’s the idea of helping others when you’re in the position and have the means to do so.
10 – Finally, if you could name one value that guides you, which one would it be?
Authenticity: staying true to yourself; staying true to who you are and what’s important to you.
We want to thank Vanessa Cherenfant for taking the time for this interview. Thank you for sharing your inspiring reflections about this cause!
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