Emma, thank you for being our first ever social distancing photoshoot in minus degree temps in April – what the fuck – will winter ever end in Calgary? COVID and shitty weather are not a good mix. How are you and your family managing?
We are doing okay. We are lucky and have a certain degree of financial security in this time and that is something that seems to be the biggest stressor in our communities. We all know what we can do to protect ourselves against this virus – but we know less about how the economy is going to fare and so I think this is having a very different impact on people whose income has been wiped out. My sales at Sophie Grace have dropped off and I am trying to make sure I still support people who worked for me. In the short term, I can make that happen. Harder in the long term…
So, we have to say you rock twitter. So why do you do it? What’s the give and take for you?
Hahaha – well I love smart journalists and policymakers and there is no better place to get a handle on the affairs of the world in real-time than twitter. Unlike Facebook it is a community where people are held to account for good and bad takes. I guess it can be a bit toxic too, but I find that access to brilliant minds across the globe is a fair trade-off for that. And block the idiots.
Emma, you are this cool creature of one-part lawyer, real estate mogul, fashion designer, and political activist. How does this fit into one human and how does this all work?
UMMMM when I figure it out, I will let you know…. Things just evolved for me. I moved into real estate when the kids were young as it was a job that wasn’t tied to the billable hour and gave me more flexibility to be with my kids. My background as a lawyer led to my activism after the 2013 flood (once you know how the sausage is made - seeing it being made poorly pisses you off) - I then was invited to work for Jim Prentice as Executive Director of the Premier's Office in Southern Alberta. Once we lost the election and I was back to real estate and I tossed all my formal workwear. But that lead me to see a white space in the women’s wear market — work clothes that were formal enough for the office but flexible and comfortable enough to wear in real life too.
You are very passionate about Alberta, but you are actually from BC – where does the passion for Alberta come from?
Actually, I am from the UK but grew up in Alberta. I think people think I am from BC be a lot of my family has relocated there. There and Toronto and the UK. And they left for opportunity that didn’t exist in Alberta. So, in my immediate family, I am the only person left in Alberta. Sisters are on the coast in BC, so is my dad. My brothers are in London England and Toronto. No one will come back to Alberta and that is sad. I see so much potential for us here and it saddens me that the government of the day is solely focused on the survival of one industry.
Tell us about your upbringing? Where, when, etc. Give us the backstory.
My parents were Londoners who moved to Calgary when she was 2. I was 4 at the time. My dad was a doctor and my mom was a journalist. She applied to law school in the ’80s and was a trailblazer in the Calgary legal community. My brothers and I were all also raised by my grandmother who lived with us and was quite the character. She had been a single mom in post-war London, and an orphan herself. She was 4’10 and took zero shit from anyone. We were all terrified of her - including the cabbies who drove for Mayfair taxi. My parents were dedicated professionals who took their obligations very seriously and were incredibly hard working.
My mother would take on every hard-luck case she could find - if something terrible had happened to you - she was ready to take up your cause. We grew up watching her wrangling the legal system to get justice for widows, dead babies, and sexually assaulted women. She took on Ford Motors when no one else would and endured the subtle threats that came her way.
My father is a quiet academic who retired from practising medicine a few years ago - he felt he could no longer be “excellent”, and that standard was the only standard he was willing to practice too.
You’ve shared the story of leaving the traditional legal practice work commitment – can you walk us through that story and how that led to where you are today?
My husband is also a lawyer. And I grew up the daughter of a lawyer. So, it was very clear to me what excellence in the profession looked like and quite frankly - I could see no way for me to achieve excellence at law and being the kind of young mother, I wanted to be. I was only a first-year lawyer when I got pregnant. I didn’t have the ability to choose my files properly. I articled at a large firm in Vancouver but had moved back to Calgary to be with my husband and once I was pregnant there was no way of getting a new gig like that.
I got a job as an in-house lawyer with a film and television company and it was amazing. I did phenomenal work and worked with amazing people, but that industry is not on solid grounding in Alberta and after I had my second child the company, I was working for went in a direction that was unsustainable. So, I was back to practicing law at a smaller firm and I was unchallenged and uninspired. I needed to work for my own sanity, but I needed to find something that would give me a better balance in my life. I got my real estate licence, then saw a gap in the brokerage market and went on to find a small boutique real estate brokerage. We are now near 50 realtors and we have great people on the team.
If you could architect a blueprint for Canada’s future, what would it look like?
Wow, heavy questions. I think it is impossible to deny that we are a country that is both blessed and dependent on our natural resources. Traditionally this has meant oil, mining, forestry, etc. But our traditional perspective on these resources also needs to shift if we are to continue to reap blessings from the land. Wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, hydro, hydrogen and a myriad of rare metals that the future economy will require as much investment and focus as traditional sources have required. The world will still need oil and gas for a time to come but it can no longer be relied upon as a cash cow but any of us (provincially and federally).
We are also an incredibly attractive place to live. My parents are immigrants and we are a standout country in this world. We should continue to be focused on getting the best and the brightest from around the world to move here and to launch businesses here. The biggest draw for these brains is post-secondary education. We are remiss if we are not pouring money into our post-secondary facilities right now because they are where are people gather to innovate and learn. The intellectual capacity of our people is the flip side to our natural recourses sector and this needs to be built up. Thriving tech sectors exist in Ontario and BC and can and should be expanded across this county.
We are also going to see a manufacturing resurgence in this country. The COVID19 crisis has made us all more aware of the impacts of being reliant on global trade for some of our most relied upon items. Drugs for instance - many of which come from Asia- there will be a push to bring back manufacturing to Canada and value propositions will include not simply price - but local impact.
Who do you find affinity with? Who pushes you to do more, be more, contribute more?
Yikes - this is a tough question. I feel like a real loner much of the time and much of my drive comes from never feeling worthy of the lucky life I have. I love groups like the one you founded - The51 - because it feels like a collection of people pursuing their own things but coming together in pursuit of community and support. I like it because I don’t need to fit in to fit in.
Why don’t you feel worthy of the lucky life you have?
It is lucky but with that comes a certain degree of responsibility. I am not sure I am fulfilling that to the extent I should be yet. I am the beneficiary of layers of immersion privilege - and I know this but at the same time pursue more. So, there is a discomfort with that tension.
Do you have a real-life superhero?
I love Christiane Amanpour. I always wanted to be a journalist and she is someone who sought out stories that needed to be told and held power to account in terms of doing something about injustice. Same with Rachel Maddow- politically-minded storytellers who know how to connect and communicate in ways that drive change - (this is probably also who I would feel affinity too….”
If you wrote a book on feminism what would be your take and what would the title of the book be?
HA! The title shall remain secret (because it's good) but I think my take is that we all need to be a little more forgiving of each other’s takes. There are a gazillion ways to be a feminist. There are many many truths out there - truths about privilege, about race, about intersectionality - and they are all incredibly important. How we experience and advocate for feminism will be different than those who have different experiences from us. As a married white woman with advanced degrees, my take on things will be completely irrelevant to someone who is struggling with poverty and racial injustice. I have to own that - and not then dismissive of my take or experience - but open to the ideas that extend beyond me. If I was a policymaker - building an agenda from only my perspective would be an abject failure. But I won’t apologize for or diminish the nature of my experiences either.
What is your political archetype? What labels do you put on yourself or others put on you?
Depends where I am:) If I am in Vancouver, I am a conservative. If I am in Calgary, I am a liberal. I think of myself primarily as a pragmatist who wants to get input from incredibly intelligent people and determine what the right thing to do is based on evidence. I am a capitalist. I like making money and I fundamentally believe capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than anything else. But it cannot be left unchecked. I truly believe the world would be a better place if we changed the business corporations laws to ensure that Directors of companies are not only beholden to shareholders and share price — but that they had to hold in the balance the impact of their decisions on employees, the community and the environment. Essentially that is what the ESG movement is - but until it encoded into law — share price will rule.
You recently raised money for food services for the vulnerable alongside partners Madame Premier and Bad Portraits – very successfully. Tell us more.
It went ok. We did a good thing. We could have done more but we needed to actually get the t-shirts screen printed in an environment where the things are semi shut down. The demand was insane and ultimately, we could only do what we could do.
Sophie Grace is building a cult following with women looking for simplicity, practicality, and timelessness. Buy less of what works. What has it been like building a fashion brand?
It is scary as fuck. It started out as a project to fill a void that I saw in the market. Simple pieces that matched, were comfortable and worked in the workplace. I have found that many many women want classic clothes. Especially women in the 40’s and up. Much of the market is either geared towards youth and sexy stuff or it is really matronly and/or expensive. We are trying to fill the gap there. And I am learning from my customers. I need to expand my size range and I have a number of new styles that are coming that will work for women with different body shapes. Nothing is easy in fashion - every piece involves a lot of decisions - shape, fabric, drape, details, sourcing of fabric, where to have things made. We started with making our clothes in a great factory in China (very good people and we have enjoyed working with them) but our new pieces are going to be made in Vancouver and we are really looking forward to working with a local factory.
As someone actively involved in real estate what do you think is the future of real estate – residential and commercial?
I think this crisis will reshape how we see our homes. I certainly know that if I was a builder, I would be building less open-plan stuff, more homes with 2 offices. I think people will really appreciate being able to have their own bit of outdoor living space. And I think the commercial sector is in for a major jolt. The expense of commercial real estate is astronomical and this experience as taught a lot of folks that they either don’t need it or they need a whole lot less of it.
What do you think will be the impact of COVID on entrepreneurship? What do you hope changes post COVID, and what do you hope stays the same?
I think many entrepreneurs are going to get screwed and will lose their businesses. I also think the drive that leads to entrepreneurship will also mean that these people will give it another go. That is the nature of the beast. I hope our systems become more forgiving in this space so that the resurrection can begin. I hope post COVID we remember that only our collective resolve could save us.