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Unlocking the potential of women in 2021: Q&A with Judy Fairburn

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month is a time to reflect on the achievements of women, mark progress towards gender equality and illuminate areas that require greater change. For instance, women and minority groups in technology represent a legacy of underrepresentation. The industry has made some progress, but what more can we do to strive for equality? Co-founder and Co-CEO of The51, and VEERUM board member, Judy Fairburn shares her views as a trailblazer, business leader and innovation eco-system builder.

What was your path to becoming a leader in the energy sector, and then in tech?

When I look back at my career, being a changemaker is what I’ve been about for a long time. My career really has three sections: first as an engineer, then as a business executive, and then finally as an entrepreneur.

The engineer

I grew up in Calgary and spent many of my summers out on the grain farm my family had on the prairies. I’m the oldest of three girls, I don’t have any brothers. That was influential for me because we were brought up to believe that there is nothing we couldn’t do, the word can’t wasn’t in our vocabulary. My dad had us doing things that traditionally boys would do like manual labour, building houses and painting. At the time I didn’t consider it as fun, but now that I look back at it as foundational in my development.

Studying engineering ended up being an amazing foundation for me, because to me engineering is really all about solving real-life problems. I had several engineering field roles early in my career, but then about 10 years into my career, I had the chance to go on a special project with McKinsey. They encouraged me to think about doing an MBA. I then focused on sustainability tech and did my MBA down east, and I see this as the catalyst for the beginning of my career in energy leadership.

The business executive

Sustainability is a very important thread to me, and I got the opportunity to work for the Canadian government at the privy council office, and this experience was transformative in focusing on innovation policy, trade, and immigration. This further opened my mind to the entire world of tech. I went back to the private sector and had operational leadership roles. I then took on an executive VP role for a major energy corporation - always at the core of my work was sustainability and business innovation. I co-founded a $100 million industry/ entrepreneur venture fund and led substantial change as Board Chair of Alberta Innovates, the Alberta government entity focused on innovation in the health, energy, agriculture and digital sectors. I then became one of the first Chief Digital Officer’s in the Canadian energy sector. Seeing the energy transition underway, I then decided to leave my executive role to focus on creating new economic opportunities for Alberta.

The entrepreneur

Today, I’m Co-Founder and Co-CEO of The51, a Financial Feminist platform where investors and entrepreneurs come together to unleash women-led capital for women-led businesses.

What advantages would increased diversity bring to the technology sector?

With The51, I knew intuitively that there was a business opportunity when you better leverage the intelligence, the capital, and the networks of 51% of the population. Research has shown that roughly women-led or women-founded teams in tech perform 35% better.

This is because when you bring in different perspectives, you make better decisions and uncover new opportunities that you may not have thought was possible. It makes sense to me that this ultimately leads to better performance.

If you look at what’s shifted- by 2030, women will manage 65% of the wealth in Canada. It’s becoming imperative that we become equal in all financial matters. The51 is a larger community that focuses on not only bringing up financial acumen, but also the awareness of what’s going on in innovation and tech. That’s for everybody. This is for everyone that wants to be involved.

It’s all about unlocking the potential of women, their capital, their talent, their networks and the amazing innovation that these founders can make happen.

What advice would you give to young women interested in pursuing a career in tech?

Some advice that I would give is that research has shown time and time again, by you just being there and having a voice, you’re going to make a difference. As well, I would encourage women to seek out the many resources that are out there. Many women discount themselves from the get-go and say: “I don’t know enough” or “I need to have this credential”. But really, when you come together as a community, you realize that you are more capable than you think or that you can learn from others.

How do you generate courage and unlock passion in your career?

It starts with your own personal resilience and unlocking what you really care about. You need to have that space and time to figure out what you are passionate about. I turn to things like journaling and outdoor exercise to unlock what I really care about in order to focus on my goals. You need to figure out what truly you want to be courageous for. After that, you must keep learning and striving to move those goals forward.

I encourage women to find a way to use your voice. Even if you need to write it down your goals first to generate courage or talk to one other person about it. It’s essential that you share your goals with somebody else to keep you accountable and set a time frame. Give yourself a deadline because that’s when things really start to happen.

It was a pleasure sitting down with Judy to discuss her story and how she succeeded in her career. If you're interested in learning more about The51 and how they are transforming the industry, click here.

Look out for our Women's History Month spotlights throughout March to learn more about what VEERUM is doing to #choosetochallenge in 2021.


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