By Opal Rowe
As far as corporate careers go, I had a pretty successful one. With positions at the Bank of Montreal (BMO), Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers, my days were spent working in management consulting and project management. But when I’d go home, I was reminded that life shouldn’t revolve around career or being obsessed about material things. These days, I’m the Living Assistance Services franchisee for the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) North. Rather than helping a corporation make more money, I bring sunshine to seniors and peace of mind to their families.
And speaking of sunshine
I’ve lived in Canada almost 13 years, but was born in Jamaica. Growing up in Kingston and the second eldest of five kids, I was raised by my father and stepmother. My dad Everett was self-employed and worked very hard to support us, first by driving a taxi and later as a beverage distributor. My father always made sure we had the basics, such as food, clothes and a roof over our heads, but there was never excess in terms of birthday parties or Christmas presents.
My dad always encouraged me to make my own decisions about what I was going to do with my life. In this respect, I grew up quite independently. My father felt his responsibility was to take care of my basic needs, while mine was to learn. That was our pact and I was very happy for it. I worked extremely hard to be able to go to university. With only one in Jamaica, there was a lot of competition to get in, and having good grades didn’t necessarily mean you would be accepted.
When I graduated high school in 1985, I decided I wanted to travel and felt studying tourism would allow me to do just that. Enrolling at the University of the West Indies in Nassau, Bahamas, I set out to get a degree in tourism management, although I initially thought I would study law. In those days, if you were going to university at all, it was to become a lawyer or doctor. But when somebody mentioned tourism to me, I thought this would provide the means to travel. I was the first person in my family to do so and studying tourism was the beginning of my adventures abroad. All told, I’ve visited some 15 countries, my favourite being Belgium. There is just something about Bruges that I connected with.
After completing my degree in 1988, I returned to Jamaica and got into tourism consulting, working with Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers. By 1993, I decided to become a chartered accountant (CA) and get my MBA to help support my consulting work. Back then, a young woman doing consulting work with firms like Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers wasn’t the norm. Consulting is a man’s game, especially in those days. It was important for me to do everything I could to be successful. To get ahead, I needed to be on more of a level playing field, if only to avoid my boss referring to me as ‘small,’ even among clients. It was pretty insulting given the calibre of companies I was working with. (I’m five feet tall and weigh about 100 pounds, in case you’re wondering.) I was the only female consultant with the firm at the time and advising companies that owned hotels. I felt upgrading my education would help me seem credible. It was challenging for me to go to school while working full time, but those late nights and weekend-long study sessions helped me get the respect I felt was lacking at the office.
Finding deeper meaning
By 1999, I had moved to the U.K. to pick up a second masters, this time in information systems and technologies. When consulting work took a downturn, I went into private practice for an international retail furniture store. The majority of my time was spent overhauling the company’s business processes, as most of the ordering was still paper-based. What began as a consulting gig turned out to be more of a project management role, and although I enjoyed it very much, I realized I needed to upgrade my education once more. I was dealing with technical people for the most part and although their use of technical jargon didn’t faze me, it made sense for me to hit the books again, so to speak, and get my masters in information technology (IT). Mind you, my intention was not to be a programmer—I just wanted to at least speak their language. By this time, I had also grown tired of working and felt going back to school was a good way to take a break and do some travelling.
For the next few years, I lived and worked in the U.K., doing IT and project management consulting. In 2002, I moved to Toronto and held various roles in project management and business analysis with companies like Canada Bread. With my management, IT and accounting experience, I could pretty much slip into any organization. My service background from my tourism consulting days also helped.