There is so much value in bringing together a diverse group of people towards a common purpose. In this episode, CEO Neelam Sahota talks about the values of their organization, DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society. Neelam also touches on the Canadian Immigration system, the services needed from a settlement perspective, and the importance of value alignment and strong foundations in an organization. Tune in now to learn how DCRS helps newcomers and diverse communities feel welcome in Canada and be able to build the life they want!
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DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society: Building Strong Organizations, Solid Relationships, And Happy Lives With CEO Neelam Sahota
If you’re an organization that is seeking to understand how to bring together the board, community and team around your common purpose, you’re going to want to read this episode with Neelam Sahota. She is the CEO of the DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society based in Surrey, British Columbia. She gives a masterclass on bringing the community together to live the shared purpose of her organization with some great tips for all of you readers. Please enjoy my conversation with Neelam Sahota.
Thanks so much for having me.
It’s great to have you on the show. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. For some of our readers who may not be familiar, tell us about DIVERSEcity and what your organization does.
We’re called the DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society. We’re a registered Canadian charity based out of Surrey, BC. The primary mandate of our organization is to help newcomers, all immigrants and refugees to settle into the communities that they are calling home. Primarily, that began in the Fraser Valley but has been spread across the lower mainland and the province.
I would imagine anyone who’s been paying attention to the news over the last couple of years knows that these issues of resettlement are very pronounced in Canada, particularly in British Columbia. What are the changes you’ve seen in your organization and people’s needs when they come to Canada?
There are always ebbs and flows in terms of what the different needs are. It stems around sometimes situations that are out of our control, such as global conflicts and where folks are largely coming in from. Canada’s immigration system is a two-part system. One is humanitarian-based, which is where many of our refugees come through and the economic immigration front as well too.
From the economic standpoint, some of the things that we’ve seen change are that we are seeing newcomers coming quite tech-savvy or ready and equipped with a lot of the skills that they need to settle into their new communities. The type of services they need from a settlement perspective is more complex in the sense of more one-on-one tailored support than a newcomer with advanced skills.
Also, on the flip side because of the humanitarian aspect of immigration to Canada, we might see those that are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum that had no intention to ever come to Canada but found themselves into situations in a war situation or some conflict situation that found them coming to Canada. They are starting from ground zero in terms of a lot of the skills that they may need to make their settlement journey a little bit smoother here in Canada.
There was a study that came out that showed that new Canadians or individuals new to Canada make up a very significant part of our social profit sector. That’s very true of your organization as well. Tell us a little bit about how you see newcomers to Canada playing a role in the social profit sector in your organization and well beyond.
It’s accurate. We find that to service newcomers or clients, we need to have a staff that’s comprised of and representative of the communities that they serve. We certainly have a lot of folks that identify as at one point in time either an immigrant or a refugee themselves that are part and parcel of our staff or volunteers that help serve the community. That’s one way that individuals find themselves giving back to the same journey that they have maybe once gone through or there’s a lot of a desire to help others that are coming through the same pathway as well too.
We see that happening. We see that there is a lot of opportunity for newcomers who are entrepreneurs, for example. A lot of them choose that pathway because that’s been a strong pathway that’s been carved at home before they immigrated over to Canada. There’s a lot of opportunity for newcomers to be in entrepreneurial ventures that are then employing other newcomers as well too. They’re finding that part of their journey to success is to be bringing along others with them. We see that at our organization.
I can imagine that it adds a lot of value for people who are new in Canada to see those who have at one point in their lives been new to Canada helping guide the way. There are probably some powerful relationships that come from that.
Your organization is one that people may not know the name of right off the top of their heads but you as a leader of the organization are very well-known in the community. How have you managed to build the prominence of your organization? What’s one thing that you lead with when you’re talking about the role of DIVERSEcity?
I always say right off the bat, our name helps. DIVERSEcity helps. I guess it’s the buzzword of the past decade, at least, I want to say. It’s interesting to play on the word DIVERSEcity. It’s one of the things that in terms of recognition of the organization is that your Google word search is going to come up with diversity in a whole bunch of different aspects. I want to say Surrey is a growing region and city in British Columbia.
It tends to have a lot of interest in terms of government, businesses and individuals who might be migrating into the province to be taking a look. That’s where our organization tends to get a lot of attention. We are Surrey’s very first settlement-serving organization, our largest serving organization in this city. Our roots are drawn in the city. I always say our organization has grown along with the city.
When we’re looking at where a lot of the younger families are settling into, Surrey certainly is on the map, perhaps a little bit less so with our land prices across the entire region being so high. That’s where largely a lot of our name brand has been recognized given that Surrey takes the lion’s share of the province’s immigration numbers as well too.
How’s your organization governed? Tell me a little bit about how your board operates and where you draw board members from.
We, like many charities, have a governance model or a framework for our board of directors. It’s very similar to our methodology for our staffing as well too. We ensure that the board of directors, their intention is to be comprised of individuals that represent the vast majority of the communities that we serve as well too. I think representation, not just from a physical ethnocultural perspective but from an experienced perspective is heavily anchored in terms of who comprises the board.
We have individuals that have either been in an immigrant-serving or an immigrant journey themselves or we’re either children of, like myself, that have very much experienced the immigration journey as well too. We’ve also ensured that to some degree, even though our organization is serving across the province, it still has a lot of its original roots in Surrey.
We want to make sure that the demographics are also well-represented within the board of directors. One of the unique things that we’ve wanted to make sure that we cement right from the top of the organization is our commitment to reconciliation, specifically, the Truth and Reconciliations Calls to Actions 93 and 94 that are around educating newcomers about the origins of this land. To that end, we wanted to make sure that there is representation from indigenous communities as well too. We’re pleased to have that even on our board of directors.
Your organization comes up in conversations around who is building boards in the right way given the communities they serve. DIVERSEcity is certainly one that comes up in our travels here at the Discovery Group. You’ve been CEO for a few years. You’ve been with the organization for many years. The questions that you ask of your board or the advice you seek from your board, how has that changed over your time as CEO?
They’ve changed a lot. Like most CEOs, there is always that dual relationship with the board of directors. They’re your direct reports but they’re also your closest sources of support and allyship in terms of setting the vision of the organization. In the early years for sure, it is mutual, both ways. More conversations tended to lean more towards some tactical, operational type of questions as opposed to where we find ourselves, which is such an exciting territory of not only strategic but large questions of what is the path ahead for the next few years.
It’s reflected in the growth of both myself and my role. The board, as well too. With every board slate that’s succeeded in the following years, they’ve all moved along in that same trajectory as well too around governance from a very strategic mindset but from a very visionary standpoint. Not only what settlement is now but what is settlement tomorrow and what that means for the organization as it pertains to nation-building. It’s exciting and that’s part and parcel of one of the many reasons I’m here.
In that answer, you’ve given us the ideal picture for leaders in the social profit sector for CEOs to have boards that they’re growing with that are looking down the road. As I’m sure in your answer, it sounded like it was a smooth straight line with no bumps along the way. I’m sure it was probably a little different as you experienced it.
Particularly as you transition from that realization, as CEOs, sometimes we think every board meeting’s a performance review, which for some people lasts forever. Usually, it’s a couple of years before people get their feet under them. As you made that transition as a leader, did you find you were bringing different questions to the board, not just operational but giving them what they need to provide that vision and have those big vision conversations?
It’s almost natural at the beginning to almost feel like you’re always put to the fire or the test at every board meeting at the beginning. It’s not always a smooth relationship between CEOs and boards of directors and we get that. You are wanting to make sure that you’re giving the right amount of information. It’s that fine balance and fine dance that needs to happen to make sure that they have enough information to be able to carry out their fiduciary responsibilities.
What’s changed is having confidence in the amount of information and the type of information that the board needs. As that relationship builds out between a CEO and a board of directors, there’s a comfort level and a level of real trust to say we’re trusting to see that the right information is before us and we have what we need to make sure that liability for the organization is mitigated and that there are also opportunities for individuals to engage.
Let’s be frank. There are a lot of boards out there, great organizations and nonprofits doing a lot of great work but the nonprofits attract great quality board members and have to ensure the right amount of engagement for board directors and get what they need out of these board engagements. That’s something the CEO is also responsible for as well too. When it comes to nonprofit boards and governance boards, it is to help build the board that the organization will thrive under in terms of bringing forward vision and excitement. It’s a two-way street. It’s not one way.It’s the CEO's responsibility to help build the board that the organization will really thrive under in terms of bringing forward vision and excitement. Click To Tweet
You’ve put your finger on the second most frequent complaint we hear from board members when we’re doing board interviews. I don’t want to be a rubber stamp. There’s no time to talk about the issues that matter and we don’t spend enough time on vision and strategy. We’re receiving reports from the finance committee and that’s not of interest to me. It takes discipline over time. Was it a discipline that turns into a habit or is it a habit that you form gently over time with the board?
It’s the discipline that forms a habit. You do need to be on the same page, have a strong board chair and be strong in terms of making sure that the board chair is representative of all the voices that are at the board table because you want to make sure every single voice is being represented. Also, work with management, especially the CEO to say, what are aspects that our must-haves.
It means must-have information that you have to have to carry out all of your fiduciary due diligence and other liability due diligence. However, how could we also make sure that we’re creating space and carving space to have generative conversations? Those generative conversations are quite often the points of engagement. From those points of engagement, what are things that are outside of these board meetings that then connect those dots of those generative conversations into actual engagements out into the community?
Those are some of the things that at DIVERSEcity we do well with our board and that every single interaction and point has a connection of a dot. That’s extremely important for board members to know that information is not coming out in silos. They’re all connected to the dots together and this is why and this is how. A strong way to fill in the whys and the hows are extremely important and I would have to say that our board is a very highly engaged board individually and also in groups as well too.
What you’ve outlined there is the evidence. It’s not about asking good questions of your board, although that’s an important part of it. It is the whole structure of how you set the meetings up and connect that outside world to the conversations around the board table. I look forward to your TED Talk or masterclass that you’re going to put together on that. It’s an issue that we see very frequently with clients around the boardroom if they want to talk about these important things.
They want to talk about these mission-critical and purpose-driven conversations. As a board, they don’t know how. I am not sure they have the right information as you said and/or they have a little bit of exploration and someone on the board goes, “Let’s make a decision.” It does take time to build that but it is deliberate in every aspect of your relationship with the board. It’s not just a 45-minute section on the agenda.
If I can also add as well getting out of the rigid structure of just meetings. There’s always an opportunity to be shaking up the type of interaction in between with opportunities for professional development for board members. That’s not necessarily always an external advisor coming in but sometimes having the opportunity of someone who may be on the board that is a resident expert. Also, to be able to be sharing that laterally across the team or even including in executive management as well too and vice versa.
We have those and unstructured board relationship-building days as well too. Also, board retreat sessions with the executive team around getting to know why each of us is connected through this organization and what keeps us going. When you add in all of those different types of touchpoints, it does create a long spectrum of being able to engage from one end to the other.
That is not a small amount of work and it is very deliberate. I appreciate you sharing that. You mentioned how the board stays fresh. I’m interested in how a CEO, who’s been in an organization for many years, keeps everything fresh. How do you keep motivated at this point in your journey with DIVERSEcity as a CEO?
I feel like those years have whizzed by super quick, yet at the same time I look back at them and it’s like, “That was us that long ago.” The industry that we’re in is always so ever-changing and the partners with whom we can dance are so ever-changing as well too. There’s a lot of opportunity that’s always fresh and I’m constantly learning. When I’m constantly learning and meeting new folks in different ways of doing things, that’s what keeps me hooked.
That’s incredibly important. I’m your type A. I’m your go-getter. If I need that freshness of being able to get into my work and this particular industry, although when I first started, I never ever thought I’d be in it for this long, this has provided me with that. We’re at an interesting time. We talk about immigration as if it’s a separate silo-type of the industry but it’s pretty much the industry of people.
When we’re talking about bringing people into Canada, the sky’s a limit in terms of how does that interaction, where does it start and where does it end? It’s as open as all the different interactions that could be. I look at this and we’re interacting with industries that at the beginning of my career, we would not have.
For example, with tech businesses, with what we call mainstream organizations, we’re working with organizations back in Ontario and out in Japan. When we take a look at that, there are a lot of different opportunities to constantly expand our reach and increase our impact and collaboration. All of those things are things that keep the work fresh for me.
Given the prominence of your organization and the success you’ve had, I can see why these partners would want to work with you and DIVERSEcity. How do you evaluate those partnerships? I am sure you probably can’t say yes to everything, even if you wanted to. How do you make the decision about, “This is a good partnership? This is a direction we need to explore?”
Values alignment is the first thing. It’s right off the bat. It doesn’t have to be the same industry but the values alignment, especially of the values of the leaders is extremely important. I am a relationship-based leader and I know many CEOs are, even though they may not define it as such. That’s incredibly important because you have to have a common baseline of what you want out of the relationship and partnership. As long as that is clear and then you’re on the same page on that, it makes for an interesting opportunity to see where the partnership may lead.Values alignment is incredibly important because you have to have a common baseline of what you want out of the relationship and what you want out of the partnership. Click To Tweet
You don’t have to name names but if you want to, feel free to name names. Are there partnerships that you didn’t explore that in hindsight you thought, “That would’ve been good. That should’ve been us. It could’ve been us?”
I can’t think from the top of my head to namedrop a few but some that I would be bold to pursue are more of the larger corporate partnerships that in the past we thought we were too much an outlier for. There’s so much confidence around moving forward with opportunities to work with a lot of the “big guys” in different industries. I don’t know any industry that isn’t touched by labor shortages or doesn’t want to get more skilled talent. When we take a look at that, we’re at the touchpoint of that. There’s a lot of opportunity and relevancy to be able to partner with us.
It’s interesting that you say the importance of immigration and building businesses. In our little group, more than half of us were born in another country. We didn’t come together on that as a reason, as a center or as a touchstone. As we started this conversation, it’s true of a lot of organizations in the social profit sector. The vitality and the diversity of thought and perspective that people new to Canada bring are important to innovation, growth and doing great things. What’s one thing that everyone who’s in Canada knew about the experience that they go through that would help make it easier for newcomers?
It’s important to know that no one is coming because they’re expecting an easy ticket or ride in. Everyone is always coming for a baseline type of reason to say either they’re coming in for better well-being for themselves or their children. It’s something that I don’t think anybody could point a finger at. Everybody would want something like a better life for themselves or their children.Everyone is always coming for a baseline reason to say they're coming in either for better well-being for themselves or their children. Click To Tweet
It’s important to understand that many of our newcomers do come in, half of them may come in because it was intentional for them to come to Canada but many of them come here because of life circumstances. It put things there in their way and they find themselves here. Thinking that people aren’t coming in here to burden the system purposefully is extremely important especially to take some of the divisive rhetoric away from this. At the end of the day, these are people that are traveling from one end of the planet to the other end of the planet for either intentional reasons and they are here to contribute or unintentional reasons that no one would want to be in. Yet, they find themselves in these circumstances.
The new Federal government standard sets a goal of having 500,000 new immigrants to Canada on an annual basis. What is that going to mean for organizations like DIVERSEcity to see those numbers go up like that?
It means that we have to be smarter as an industry around being able to scale. I say that because I’m also a very pragmatic person as well too. I have a business background. The government can’t continue to also expand funding sources either. We’re going to need to take a look at where the crossroads of government funding, innovative scaling by organizations and creating unique partnerships.
All three things play an answer to the increased volume that we’re going to certainly see of newcomers coming through the door. That’s going to be key. Many times, we see large data like that and we suddenly panic and think that things have to be done differently. Yet, when we look back, there are a lot of proven successful settlement models and they quite often need a little bit of refinement or they do need some thinking behind how we scale this and be able to scale that across.
That’s going to be key, especially as we take a look at the next few years and the possibility of a recession and austerity measures, all of those things combined that are going to come in around the same time as these increasing immigration numbers. When you look at all of that macro data, to me that means that we need to take a look at how can we scale what we’re doing and create some of these synergies across the board without necessarily always looking at additional dollars.
From the macro perspective, let’s look at the micro. How do you explain or talk about these types of changes within your organization or team? As effective as they are, it’s still quite a small team too. Explaining that while this wave is coming, here’s how we’re going to react to it. How do you, as the leader, coach them up on that or explore that with them?
We have an amazing staff of over 230 staff. A lot of them have been doing this as a lifelong career and have also gone through these journeys as well too. When we take a look at ideas around what we can do to scale and how we can serve communities better with more volume, a lot of the answers are with them.
I always find that we try to do a lot more listening than teaching or sharing information. A lot of it is around, “Here’s the situation at hand. This is what’s happening. Let’s talk. Let’s have these generative conversations around what can we do.” Over and over again, I’m always floored at the amount of knowledge and careful consideration our frontline staff has.
It’s because they’re the ones that are meeting with the newcomers, whether they’re either at our centers or we go out into the community to meet folks where they’re at. I always say the answers are always in the community. It’s never or rarely out in government, other offices or CEO offices even. That’s been a tried and tested formula for us and we will continue to practice that.
The way to coach people is to ask them questions in their areas of expertise and then listen to them. As we come to the end of our conversation, Neelam, I want to ask you my favorite question for our guests, which is what are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to seeing our organization placemaking or creating our space around how we wish to be seen in the community, what’s our footprint going to be and what’s our legacy going to be as an organization. When we start thinking about that, it immediately changes the thinking of everybody around us. It’s away from the crisis-driven day-to-day operational type of thinking and gets everybody thinking about the larger picture and goals.
As an organization, we are looking forward to that type of thinking. We’re talking about sustainability, governance, leadership and succession planning. We’re talking about placemaking in a community with other partners and indigenous communities. All of those are big-piece topics and those are conversations that are coming at a unique time for us because we are going into our five-year strategic plan.
This year is going to be around those large topics. We’re the largest we’ve ever been as an organization, which means that we’ve got some incredible folks that are also going to be lending their expertise to these bigger conversations. Anytime you have an opportunity for fresh voices and lenses to happen, that’s when the magic happens. I’m looking forward to our work ahead on our next five-year plan.
Readers, that’s what walking the talk sounds like in a leader in the social profit sector. Neelam, thank you so much for being a part of the show. It’s been a pleasure to have you on.
Thank you for having me.
About Neelam Sahota
Neelam Sahota is a senior executive with over 20 years of progressive experience in spearheading financial management, capital projects, strategic planning, governance risk management within the private, public and not-for-profit sector.
Her award-winning work in the social and economic development of Surrey, BC is based on creating community impact through resource connections, innovative economic drivers and values-based community partnerships. Neelam has been named the 2022 BC Business’ Woman of the Year in the nonprofit category.
Neelam joined DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society as the Chief Executive Officer in 2013. She has been appointed a Fellow of the Chartered Professional Accountants of British Columbia (FCPA, FCGA) and is also an alumna of the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University (SFU). Neelam has in-depth experience in board governance having served in a number of capacities.
She is currently an order-in-council appointed Board Governor of SFU (Chair of the Finance and Administration Committee), a Board Director with the Association of Canadian Studies, Co-Chair of the Surrey Local Immigration Partnership (LIP), an Advisory Board Member of OMNI TV Rogers Communications and for Solid State Industries. She has been the past Board Chair of Surrey Libraries and past Treasurer of the Immigrant Employment Council of BC.
Neelam is an accomplished governance leader and was awarded the BC Libraries Trustees Association’s (BCLTA) Trustee of the Year in 2021 and the work of the Surrey LIP of which she co-chairs is a recipient of the 2022 BC Achievement Foundation Truth and Reconciliation Award. She is a past recipient of the Surrey Board of Trade’s Nonprofit Leader of the Year award and a past finalist of the YWCA Women of Distinction Awards (2020) as well as the Surrey Community Leader of the Year Award (2021).
Neelam was born in Vancouver and raised in Burnaby. She now lives in Surrey with her husband and children and has been a resident of the city for the past 24 years. As a first generation Canadian, she has grown up with the challenges inherent with settlement for families. Witnessing firsthand her own families struggles in her early years and those around her continues to provide the inspiration behind using her voice and platform to advocate for and create systems change that is rooted in the principles of equity, access and justice.