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SJHH / International Womens Day 2021

International Womens' Day 2021

On International Women’s Day, we recognize the achievements of women and their contributions to our community. In so doing, we asked a number of women leaders at St. Joe's to reflect upon their careers, while also sharing thoughtful advice to their younger selves, and future generations of females in health care.

Melissa Farrell, President

Prior to taking on the top job at St. Joe's, Melissa Farrell, President, served as the Assistant Deputy Minister of the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care’s Hospitals and Emergency Services Division.

At a time, she also held the role of Director of the Primary Health Care Branch with the Ministry’s Negotiations and Accountability Management Division, which supported the enhancement of primary care services in Ontario.

She credits an opportunity early in her career, during which she helped establish a strategy to reduce wait times for a number of healthcare services in Ontario, as a pivotal moment in her climb up the professional ladder.

“It took my career from being a regular policy maker within the government to having a key leadership role,” Farrell says, adding the opportunity also exposed her to what it takes to be a good leader.

“I try to be a leader who sets the direction for teams generating ideas and concepts to take ownership of their work. Innately, I trust people to deliver, and I am always so impressed with the creativity and quality of work by our teams at St. Joe’s.”

Asked what advice she’d give to her younger self, Farrell says, “When I began taking on roles with more responsibility, I always had this feeling of being an imposter – that someone was going to find out I’m not the right person for the job.

“What I’d say to myself is this, ‘You can do it. You are good enough. Have faith in yourself.’”

Dr. Michelle Kho, Physiotherapist & Clinician-Scientist

Dr. Michelle Kho knows firsthand that career setbacks have the potential to make way for new, and deeply rewarding, opportunities for professional growth.

A physiotherapist and clinician-scientist who cares for patients in St. Joe’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU), Dr. Kho learned this life lesson after not being accepted into physiotherapy school the first time she applied.

“I was profoundly disappointed, however, the experience allowed me to pursue a master’s degree in biomechanics, and a research project on figure skating, which I’ve always loved,” she says.

If it wasn’t for the unexpected bump in her career path, Dr. Kho says she wouldn’t have had the chance to work at the Olympics in a research capacity for figure skating, and might not have gone on to become a clinician-scientist dedicated to research that improves the quality of life of her patients.

Dr. Kho’s research focuses on effective and creative methods of physiotherapy, such as in-bed cycling, to help patients stay as strong as possible while they are in the ICU. Her work also aims to enhance the function and daily lives of ICU survivors.

If she could advise her younger self on the course of her career, Dr. Kho would say, “Follow the questions that interest you. You will have great mentors. Sometimes, the results that are most disappointing at the time will lead to things well beyond your imagination.”

Sera Filice-Armenio, President & CEO, St. Joseph's Healthcare Foundation, Hamilton & CEO St. Joseph’s Health Centre Foundation, Guelph

Growing up, Sera Filice-Armenio often thought about becoming a teacher. A chance meeting, however, inspired her to change the course of her career from education to philanthropy, and she hasn’t looked back since.

In her role as President and CEO of St. Joseph's Healthcare Foundation in Hamilton and CEO of St. Joseph’s Health Centre Foundation in Guelph, Filice-Armenio provides strategic direction for the foundations’ donor relations, fundraising campaigns and events in support of the hospital and health centre. 

“Every day, I’m inspired to work with remarkable, generous people and organizations that empower the work of our hospital by providing donations of all kinds to improve the overall health of the communities we serve,” she says.

When she isn’t leading initiatives that support quality patient care, research, and education at St. Joe’s, Filice-Armenio gives back to the community by serving on a number of volunteer boards.

In reflecting upon 28 years in the philanthropic sector, she advises other women pursuing their careers to embrace the unexpected opportunities life can present.

“They can be very subtle, or come at an inconvenient time, but they can lead you to an amazing and immensely rewarding journey both professionally and personally,” she says.

Asked what life lessons she’d share with her younger self, Filice-Armenio says, “Surround yourself with colleagues who share the same values, mentors with invaluable life experience, and family members who are your biggest champions and supporters in good and challenging times.”

Geeta Sharma, Director, Occupational Health and Safety Services

Over her 20-year career promoting occupational health and safety excellence, Geeta Sharma has led a number of organizations to becoming recognized among Canada’s safest places to work.

In her role as Director of Occupational Health and Safety Services at St. Joe's, she works with a broad team of employee health and safety specialists to help keep the hospital’s healthcare workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond. 

Sharma says her approach to achieving safe workplaces stems from a valuable lesson learned in her first role out of university. She was asked to launch a safety program for a food processing plant, which focused on legislative compliance and best practices in workplace safety without meaningful consultation from her colleagues.

“When I presented the program to the executive team, I recognized quickly that while legislatively sound, the program missed the mark completely because it did not consider the operational or human implications” Sharma recalls.

“The minute I started to understand that sustaining safety in the workplace involved engaging people, and not just legislation and safety principles, it changed the trajectory of my career. It gave me the learnings I needed to become a leader.”

Given the opportunity, what advice would Sharma give to herself in her formative years? “To be an influential leader, you need to win the hearts and minds of others by building relationships with the people you serve, deeply understanding their lived work experience, and then providing collaborative solutions to address those safety needs,” she says.

Franca Vavaroutsos, Chief Financial Officer

With more than 20 years experience as a finance and business leader, much of which has been dedicated to health care, Franca Vavaroutsos, Chief Financial Officer at St. Joe's, was fortunate in her career to work with strong female leaders who encouraged her professional growth.

“They saw me as their right-hand person, which instilled a great amount of confidence that I could do the job,” she says.

In her current role, Vavaroutsos strives to extend the same support she received to advance other women on her team –  through opportunities that leverage existing strengths or the chance to learn something new.

“I really try to bring people to the table, whether it’s to observe for knowledge or to set the foundation to lead in the future,” she says.

If she could mentor her past self, Vavaroutsos would offer the following guidance: “Be kind to yourself and others. As a leader, you will not only be recognized for your accomplishments but also remembered for how you treated others along the way. 

“Be honest, work hard and never compromise your self-worth. Speak up, share your thoughts and believe you have something to contribute. Have the confidence to take some risks and explore new opportunities as those experiences will ultimately lead to both personal and professional growth that will mold you in to a strong leader.”

Nelly Javanrouh, Manager, Medical Affairs and Patient Relations

When Nelly Javanrouh immigrated to Canada from Iran, she was a teenager who always wanted a career in health care to help others.

Moving an ocean away from friends and family and learning a new language were challenges, she says. They didn’t stop her, however, from pursuing her dream of becoming  an intensive care nurse before transitioning in to leadership. 

Today, as the Manager of Medical Affairs and Patient Relations at St. Joe’s, Javanrouh and her team play a vital role in bridging the gap between the hospital and its patients, as well as members of their families and support networks.

Through open channels of dialogue with patients and families, Javanrouh’s team is dedicated to improving the quality of hospital services.

Javanrouh says her career aspirations were largely driven by a desire to enhance health care, and its equitable access in the community.

“I always turn to an example of when I was working as a nurse, and a person struggling with homelessness and a famous actress were treated on the same floor, and received the exact same care,” Javanrouh says. “I’ve always been proud of that. We make a difference, and we provide great care.” 

Asked what advice she would give to herself as a budding healthcare worker, Javanrouh says, “Trust your abilities, don’t be afraid to re-invent yourself and, most importantly, lean in to help other women achieve their aspirations.”

Karen Langstaff, Chief Facility Planning and Patient Support Services

While Karen Langstaff chose to work in health care to make an impact on the community, her career path took a number of twists and turns resulting in varied, yet progressive, experiences that have shaped her approach to leadership.

“I feel like my career unfolded in front of me. Obviously, I had to make decisions and choices, but whenever a new opportunity came up, I took it and can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed every role that I’ve had,” she says. “If the next one felt good, and it happened to be a greater leadership role, then I knew I made the right decision.”

Langstaff was a nurse before taking roles in infection control and utilization management. Today, as the Chief of Facility Planning and Patient Support Services at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, she takes a collaborative approach to leading redevelopment and building maintenance for more than 2.5 million sq. ft of space, including biomedical engineering, environmental services, clinical nutrition and food services.

If she could advise her younger self, Langstaff would highly recommend embracing diverse roles, and the perspective they inspire.

“Expose yourself to different jobs and departments – all of them will help you gain exposure to the way other people think and work,” she says. “You might be surprised in what you find, and where your interests might lead you.”

Tara Coxon, Vice President and Chief Information Officer

When Tara Coxon, Vice President and Chief Information Officer at St. Joe's, first embarked on her career in healthcare management 20 years ago, information technology was largely a male-dominated sector.  

“The people and process design skills associated with transformational change pioneered the way for women to enter the technology workforce. This is where I got my start.” she says. “Today, women are still actively working on closing the gender gap in technology professions.” 

Since then, Coxon says the industry has become more balanced in terms of gender equality, and there are number of women on her team, including those in leadership positions.    

At St. Joe’s, she uses her collaborative leadership style to spearhead digital transformation projects, including the launch of Dovetale – the hospital’s digital solution and sole source for patient and care provider access to all medical records.

The digital transformation associated with Dovetale’s launch catapulted St. Joe’s health informatics position to among the top seven per cent of hospitals in Ontario, according to the Health Information and Management Systems Society.

In looking back on her career, what would Coxon tell herself as a youth? “Continue to be driven. Set and achieve iterative goals. Have faith in the knowledge you will get to what, and where, you are meant to be. And take solace in knowing that it is OK if it takes a little longer to get there.

“Give yourself permission to not sacrifice one goal for another, or things that really matter to you. You don’t need to be where you want to be tomorrow. It’s getting to the end goal that counts.”