Interview conducted by Chanèle McFarlane
Photography by Keidi Janz

Sometimes you have to step outside of your normal surroundings to gain a new perspective, or in Heather Barnabe’s case, to find your true calling.

Meet Heather: the CEO of G(irls)20, an organization dedicated to cultivating a new generation of female leaders. After an eye-opening backpacking trip to South America, Heather returned with a renewed sense of purpose and immediately redirected her career path to one that would allow her to become an advocate for women and girls.

She went on to work at organizations including CARE and Right to Play and in 2017, she joined G(irls)20 where she continues to successfully spearhead meaningful initiatives. Most notably, Girls on Boards (a program to place young women aged 18-25 on non-profit governance boards in their communities) and the G(irls)20 Summit, a global meeting that brings together young female delegates to build their skills and collaborate with local and global experts to produce tangible solutions.

Her journey to becoming a C-level executive hasn’t always been easy. She has courageously taken many risks to get to where she is today (and has admitted to making major career mistakes in the past) but through it all, she has never wavered on trusting herself and her abilities.

Get a major dose of inspiration from Heather as she shares the value of taking major career risks, finding happiness after heartbreak and why she questions the typical definition of confidence:

Tell us about a time that life handed you lemons. Did you make lemonade? 

Tough first question! To be perfectly honest, I’ve never really felt that life gave me lemons. I’ve been preternaturally fortunate so it’s hard to feel like I’ve ever been in need of making lemonade.

That said, probably the hardest thing I’ve experienced as an adult was a failed engagement. Beyond the heartbreak, it left me in a financially vulnerable space for which I was ill-prepared. How did I make lemonade? I focused on areas of self-improvement and ensuring that my finances would always be in a healthy place moving forward.

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Describe your ideal work environment to get sh*t done.

Bright and bustling with energy. I do my best work with direct sunlight, a hot cup of coffee and surrounded by people who are hustling to achieve their goals. G(irls)20 staff ooze the perfect vibe and motivate me to get sh*t done daily.  

How much of your career success has come from taking risks versus playing it safe?

Risks! Take the risks! I’ve moved to new cities multiple times for new jobs and taken on roles (including this one) that felt out of my league. Each time, it’s meant a sharp learning curve and an incredible opportunity to grow. People who have a favourable approach to risk also have a lot of confidence.

We often think confidence is the absence of feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. I don’t agree. I think confidence is trusting yourself to say “yup, this feels like a giant step for me, I’m scared and it’s going to be really hard. I’m also going to do just fine and this risk will have excellent long-term payoffs.”

Tl/DR – Ladies: take risks.

How do you measure success in your career?

Cheesy response #1: do I wake up feeling like my work is making a difference and a good building block to future goals? Yes? Success measurably achieved. No? Time to pivot to something else.

"We often think confidence is the absence of feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. I don’t agree. I think confidence is trusting yourself to say “yup, this feels like a giant step for me, I’m scared and it’s going to be really hard. I’m also going to do just fine and this risk will have excellent long-term payoffs.”

You're 30 minutes away from walking into an important meeting. What do you do to get yourself in the right headspace?

If it’s 30 minutes before, I’m already well-prepped for the meeting, meaning I’ve done my readings, written down my key points and know exactly what outcomes I expect.  I’m probably doing a brief review of materials and listening to some music to keep calm and focused. I can get nervous before important meetings so calming music or a colleague to chat with is ideal.

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Was their ever a moment that you questioned your career path? How did you overcome it?

I had the privilege of working for the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic Games (VANOC) for the better part of 3 years. It was an exceptionally exciting experience but, as I watched all my colleagues be swept up in the passion of the Games, I realized I lacked their passion for the work we were doing.  

After the Games, I backpacked around South America and found the lives of the women and girls there incredible - incredibly hard, incredibly resilient, and incredibly inspiring. There were a number of organizations that supported them to achieve their potential and boom! My career path was set before me.

What is the last investment you've made that has made your life better?

Cheesy response #2: the relationship with my partner, Greg. I’ve always been well invested in my friendships and with my family but not my relationships.

I met Greg at 33 and it shifted my whole approach to being a partner. Now I regularly think about what investments are needed in our relationship to ensure it thrives.  And I’ve never been happier with an investment of my time and energy. It helps that he’s the cutest.

Have you ever had anyone doubt you?

Of course! Often! It’s normal to come up against people who doubt your abilities, especially when you are a young woman. What did I do about it? Nothing. Remember what I said about confidence earlier? It’s about trusting yourself when others doubt you.

I stay focused on doing my job the best way I know how and am always open to feedback on how to do it better. But I’ll be damned if I spend my time worrying about those who doubt me without having truly worked with me.

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What is something people would be surprised to know about you?

I have three older brothers who are best described as a colourful cast of characters. People are always surprised at our different personalities but those three played a formidable role in shaping who I am. I  must also thank them for gifting me with (highly useful) thick skin.

What would you say has been the biggest mistake you've made and how did you rectify it?

I’ve failed many times in my career and made some pretty big mistakes. But the biggest, overarching mistake was generally how I conducted myself. If you met me 10 years ago, you would have met a much harsher individual. I thought that’s how you demonstrated power and strength!

I laugh now reflecting on that approach. Good leadership does not come from practicing archaic approaches to management but from leaning into my strengths – empathy, humour and vulnerability. I think the G(irls)20 staff knows that I will always bring those 3 traits to the table and we build together from there.


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