A complimentary and collaborative new approach

A complimentary and collaborative new approach

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story | Published: April 3, 2023

As the world starts to get back to some semblance of “business as usual” after the chaos and challenges of the last three years, the Halifax Chamber looks to the future with a renewed hope and optimism; traits certainly reflected in its new leadership.

Incoming Chair, Chris Cowper-Smith, and Vice Chair, Ann Divine, though on the surface very different people with different lived experiences and backgrounds, share a set of common goals for what they hope to achieve over the next year – a year when the Chamber will develop a new {3} year strategic plan. [sl1] Those common goals surround a focus on how the Chamber can help Halifax continue to grow and prosper as a community where businesses and the people that work in them can thrive. Among their top priorities, Cowper-Smith and Divine share an interest in continuing to foster an environment — both at the Chamber as well as in the Halifax business community — of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEA&I), a now familiar theme to Halifax Chamber members. Both Cowper-Smith and Divine acknowledge that though important, DEA&I is just part of the equation in terms of ushering in a new vibrant era for a city experiencing a population and economic boom like never before.

With the Chamber’s 2019-2023 Strategic Plan coming to a close, the Board is revisiting the current plan and looking at priorities for the coming years. Many of the core goals – keeping taxes low, supporting immigration, fostering private sector growth – are likely to remain the same.

However, with a rapidly growing and changing business climate, Cowper-Smith and Divine see exciting opportunities for Halifax, including with respect to how the city can tackle challenges relating to climate change, business productivity, and a fast-growing population.

Halifax’s start-up ecosystem

Chris Cowper-Smith, who 20 years ago thought he would become an actor or musician, is a successful Halifax entrepreneur and neuroscientist who realized the arts were not his professional calling when a different “actor,” so to speak, entered the stage.

“I learned how a neuron worked, my sense of curiosity took over, and that was that.”

Acquiring a PhD in Neuroscience, Cowper-Smith became involved in research focused on perception and motor control as it relates to the central nervous system’s control over the movement of our body, eventually becoming CEO of the truly innovative and inspiring Spring Loaded Technology — a technology company that reinvented the knee brace. Throughout his time at Spring Loaded, Cowper-Smith gained a wealth of experience, not only in the tech and research sectors, but also in corporate development and international commercialization strategies.

“At Spring Loaded, I had the opportunity to work with some truly brilliant people as we took the company from idea to market, raising venture capital, refining our product, establishing manufacturing, navigating regulatory barriers, and building multiple distribution channels across North America,” he says.

His years at the company have also given him a unique perspective on how the Chamber can support the ever-growing Halifax business community.

Real world experience

That real world experience is part of what Cowper-Smith brings to the table — as a Board member and now as Chair.

Ann Divine, an expert in her field, brings her own real word skill set, complimentary and in addition to Cowper-Smith's.

The founder and CEO of Ashanti Leadership & Professional Services Inc., Divine spent two years sitting on the Chamber Board before throwing her hat into the ring for one of the leadership roles.

“At the time I didn’t imagine myself to be in a leadership position, as I am today, but as I continued, I felt that I could make a difference,” she says.

Born in the former British Guyana, where she spent her early childhood, Divine later moved to London, England with her parents. Eventually pursuing a career in social work, Divine then worked as a senior probation officer supporting individuals coming out of and into prison — a vocation which seems to have informed the lens through which she now views the world around her.

“I had to go to bat for those seen as ‘less desirable’ for reintegration back into the community,” she says. “I had to make sure that regardless of who they were, they were treated with dignity and respect.”

Divine's guiding principle, she says, is her desire to always treat all individuals with respect and dignity — a life mantra which led her, after arriving in Canada with her husband and children in 2004 — to continue to pursue a path of equity and inclusion. A job working at the NS Office of Immigration then led to work with the NS Human Rights Commission as Manager for Race Relations, Equity, and Inclusion. In 2014, Divine left government, choosing to go out on her own after challenges around finding work in her field and at her level.

“I felt I was going round and round in circles. I was applying for leadership positions, and they weren’t coming my way, so I decided to become my own CEO,” she says.

Vision for the year

Chris Cowper-Smith, when asked about why he was drawn to the position and what he hopes to accomplish during his time as Chair, harkens back to his roots in the business community and the importance of strong partnerships and organizations, like the Chamber, to not only support businesses but to create a better city overall — to live, work, and as Cowper-Smith puts it, “to play.”

“Without those conditions, it’s more difficult to recruit and retrain great talent, and it’s more difficult to compete on the international stage,” he says.

In terms of what he’d like to accomplish over the next year, Cowper-Smith, like Divine, emphasizes the importance of bringing new and varied voices to the table[sl2] .

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my career to date, it’s that we’re strongest when we invest in hearing, understanding, and learning from a broader range of perspectives and experiences,” he says.

Ann Divine couldn’t agree more. A strong advocate for and believer in creating cultural and organizational change from the inside out, she knows the power of real inclusivity, not just paying lip service to the concept.

“We can create as much diversity as we want, but unless we’re prepared to make that cultural shift, that shift in our thinking, actions, and mindset, and be intentional about being more inclusive of others, then it’s not going to work,” she says.

Divine and Cowper-Smith both recognize the importance — as Halifax welcomes unprecedented numbers of new residents from all walks of life and backgrounds — of truly reflecting and supporting members — old and new.

Both also agree that the well-being of a business community is uniquely tied to the well-being of a city and the communities within it; a symbiotic relationship where the health and vibrancy of one has a reverberating effect in other areas.

“There has to be systemic change — from the inside out — because the people make up the culture of the organization. Those same individuals are in our communities,” Divine says.

Cowper-Smith's newest endeavours, since stepping away from Spring Loaded Technology in 2021, include Mable Health, an investment platform focused on musculoskeletal health and Cedar Point Solutions, where he helps established organizations and early-stage companies develop and translate focused strategic plans into action, allowing them to “innovate, modernize, and achieve transformational growth.”

And true to his core values — reflected in his innovative and game-changing work at Spring Loaded — Cowper-Smith, though “industry agnostic,” as he puts it, is still focused on a better tomorrow by assisting those companies working towards that same end.

“I work exclusively with organizations that are aiming to make our world a better place, whether that’s in healthcare, oceans, the green economy, or elsewhere,” he says.

Businesses need support and leadership when it comes to the climate crisis, he continues, and the Chamber wants to be part of the solution.

Under Chris and Ann’s guidance, the organization will continue to listen to members to better understand their needs, challenges, and opportunities, to help the Chamber further shape its direction and focus.

The needs of a growing city

The Halifax Chamber, with its commitment to growing and adapting with its members as Halifax moves through the coming decades as a thriving, quickly changing and growing city, will have two progressive and forward-looking individuals in its corner. A Chair and Vice Chair who absolutely have the good of the city’s business community as well as its population as a central motivating force.

“In addition to advocating for strong economic conditions today, we need to invest in the long-term well-being of our population through advancements in healthcare, housing, critical infrastructure, education, and our environment,” says Cowper-Smith. “Those investments need to be focused on sustainable prosperity rather than the next election cycle” he adds, noting that the Chamber is non-partisan and motivated to work toward our collective wellbeing with all governments.

Ann Divine, on her end, sees the importance of open dialogue with government as Halifax faces the challenges and opportunities which come with the territory when speaking of rapid municipal growth.

“We need to be collaborative, to share our knowledge and expertise with government; to also listen to what they have to say. We might not always agree, but we still need to work together for the good of all Haligonians. At the end of the day, it’s about honest and open dialogue,” she says.

The Chamber recently submitted both its provincial and municipal pre-budget submissions, outlining its recommendations that would provide value to our businesses, improve the lives of Nova Scotians, and increase our province’s economic growth. Focusing on key issue areas, derived from conversations with our members, the submissions highlight ways to improve our fiscal position, housing supply, population needs, and economics.

Our 50/30 commitment

In response to the Canadian Government’s 50/30 challenge, the Halifax Chamber continues its commitment to putting more women and non-binary people, as well as other equity-deserving groups, in seats in the Board room and in senior leadership positions — actively promoting the commitment, both within the walls of the Halifax Chamber, as well as in its many member businesses.

Divine says she’s one of the 30 per cent they’re aspiring to. Aspiring, but not quite there, she also adds.

"The Chamber’s worked very hard, because when looking for the Board we looked at the balance and how to achieve that. At the moment we have 47 per cent women and 29 per cent diversity,” she says.

Chris Cowper-Smith's aim in this regard, he says, is to “establish sustainable, genuine, and credible leadership as an organization where people feel welcomed, and more broadly, to help our members benefit from all that our diverse communities have to offer.”

And where do these two stand on working together over the next 12 months? One thing which was made abundantly clear by their comments is how well their mutual respect and admiration will serve the Board, Chamber members, and the city itself.

And Cowper-Smith doesn’t mince words when talking about Divine.

“Ann is remarkable business leader and equally impressive thought leader in DEA&I and Human Rights. I look forward to having the opportunity to collaborate with Ann and all our board members over the next year, to ensure the Chamber remains the partner our members need as the city undergoes this transformative growth,” he says.

And from Divine’s point of view, Cowper-Smith's collaborative approach and sense of humility are strong traits working in his favour.

“Chris has an attitude of ‘what can I learn from you?’, and I believe he’s open to learning and will share and create opportunities for both of us to share the space,” she says.

And on a closing note, Divine’s final thoughts speak volumes about her own humility, strength, practicality, and desire to do right by the position she now holds — for the good of all Haligonians: businesses and residents alike.

“Folks are not always happy with us. It’s never a bed of roses. But it’s about sharing our expertise, working together, developing that relationship we all want, and working for the common good of the business community, because it goes beyond the business community. If our business community is happy, our community is happy, as a whole.”

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story

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