Karen Gallant, the new CEO of Junior Achievement South Western Ontario, chats about working to make a difference, the digital transformation and her short-lived accountant aspirations
KAREN GALLANT IS the new CEO of Junior Achievement South Western Ontario, replacing Bev Robinson, who retired after running the London organization for nearly 15 years. Prior to taking the role in May, Gallant was a vice-president with Junior Achievement Canada.
She lives in Waterloo, where she grew up and attended Wilfrid Laurier University, earning a degree in human resources. She is now responsible for JA operations throughout Southwestern Ontario and will divide her time between the London and JA Waterloo Region offices.
She and husband, Mike Gallant, have two children; a second grandchild is expected in September. She enjoys hiking and gardening and is counting down the days until travel is viable again.
Congratulations on your new job. You’ve been with Junior Achievement in various roles for more than five years. How will this job be different?
Thank you. Yes, I’ve been with JA for a while now in a few different roles. I think the biggest difference is in the complexity of the organization. JA’s program delivery model has changed due to the pandemic — in addition to the model with volunteers in a classroom, now the programs can be delivered virtually with a volunteer joining the class through a video-conferencing platform or with a teacher facilitating the program. Students can also work through the program on their own through the JA Campus. This means JA’s programs are now available to youth in areas where we previously couldn’t deliver programs, which is fantastic, but it also adds complexity to our business.
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How and why did you first get involved with JA?
I was part of the leadership team at Communitech and was considering my next career move. I had decided that I’d like to be the executive director or CEO of a charity or non-profit, so I began to research potential organizations that aligned with my background, interests and values. JA was at the top of that list. The mission of JA — to inspire and prepare youth to be successful — was inspiring and something I believe in strongly. I’ve been fortunate to always work for organizations that made a difference to their communities, and JA certainly does that. The mission also resonated on a personal level, since I had teenagers at the time. Anyway, I shared my aspirations with some of my network and told them I was interested in JA. Through them, I learned that the CEO of JA Waterloo Region was leaving for a new role and so I applied. I was fortunate to be chosen to replace her and that was the beginning of my JA career.
What’s your vision for the South Western Ontario branch?
I’d like every student within the region to benefit from at least one JA program during their academic career, and preferably multiple programs. With the new digital programs and variety of delivery methods, I think this achievable.
Is there any truth to the perception that high school kids today might be more interested in creating an app than a physical product? Would that even matter?
We definitely see more students being interested in creating apps or other digital products. I think it’s a result of our changing business environment and what they see — so many businesses are successful in the tech space. I’m not sure the type of product they make matters; there are obviously differences, but both have potential to be exciting entrepreneurial ventures that could grow into successful businesses.
Were you interested in business as a teenager?
Yes, I was. In high school, I really liked accounting and thought I’d like to be an accountant. My mother encouraged me to apply to a business program, not only an accounting program, and I’m glad she did. After one university financial accounting class, I decided I didn’t want to be an accountant!
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Presumably, JA operations were curtailed over the last year. How did the organization deal with that?
Yes, they were to an extent. Fortunately, JA Canada was developing a new learning management system before the pandemic hit. When schools shut down in March 2020, JA Canada accelerated the launch of the new LMS, and worked with program staff across the country to develop digital versions of our programs. Within two weeks, there were digital versions of JA’s most popular programs available for teachers to use in remote learning or for students to do on their own. Over this school year, teachers and students have continued to use the programs on the LMS to complement their learning. Even though it wasn’t possible to have volunteers go into classrooms to deliver programs, video-conferencing still allowed volunteers to talk to students. And, of course, some conference-style programs and large events such as the London and District Business Hall of Fame gala became completely virtual. They were different, but successful all the same.
Do you have heroes in the corporate world?
I wouldn’t say I have heroes in the corporate world. I have the utmost respect and admiration for leaders who drive success while remaining humble, grounded and making contributions back to society. I’m fortunate to know many people like that. Interview by Christopher Clark