Extending the table

Extending the table

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story | Contributors: Emily Bednarz | Published: May 1, 2024

Images by BASHA Koncepts Media.

Canada was never part of Ann Divine’s plan. But in 2004, she left London, England to join her husband, Professor David Divine (Ret’d), in moving to Nova Scotia. The move was a step into the unknown for her, but twenty years later—with unwavering support from her family and encouragement from friends and local business leaders—Ann has become the CEO of her own company and has made a lasting impact in Nova Scotia, the business community, and for Black women and women of colour in business. Her tireless advocacy, her generosity, and her professional experience are just a few reasons why the Halifax Chamber is honoured to welcome Ann as Chair of our Board of Directors this year.

Ann was born in Guyana, South America, where she spent her early childhood. She later moved to London, England to join her parents, pursuing her education and eventually a rewarding career in Education Social Work and senior leadership at the London Probation Service. After leaving her work in London, Ann was eager to keep busy. When she first landed in Nova Scotia, she made a visit to the Keshen Goodman Library and noticed an advertisement for English classes. Seeking a sense of community and opportunity in a new place, she decided to attend the classes, but at the invitation of a librarian Marian Lindsay, she soon found herself teaching new immigrant women instead.

Ann now recounts the story sitting at a table on the top floor of Halifax’s Central Library. “It always feels comforting walking into any of the libraries here in Halifax,” she says. “The library gave me a place.”

While the library was a place of comfort and community for Ann, the move to Canada was initially a frustrating and deflating experience. “You come to Canada believing that you can walk into a job and that you can make a difference, but it wasn’t like that,” she says.

Ann noticed that many of the immigrant women she worked with at the library faced a similar struggle. Although many were highly educated in their former countries—scientists, teachers, and doctors—for most, the move to Canada meant they would have to start their careers over from scratch.

“Imagine, you’re in your mid-40s, you’re in this new place, and whilst your peers are thinking of retiring, you’re thinking of ratcheting up your career,” says Ann. “When we come to Canada, we don’t come and start building our lives in Canada. We come with an entire history, having gone through different iterations of our careers, and so having to start all over again is challenging. We are often asked to have Canadian experience, but where do you get Canadian experience if the system is closed to you?”

In 2006, Ann started working with the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration, later connecting with Viki Samuels-Stewart, who encouraged her to apply for a role at the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. Ann stayed with the Commission for seven years as the manager for Race Relations, Equity and Inclusion before founding Ashanti & Professional Development Services Inc., in 2014.

In 2012, Ann was inspired to start the Black and Immigrant Women’s Network. “The women I was working with told me that they only saw inside of a boardroom for three things: to clean, to be disciplined, and to be fired—and they wanted more,” says Ann.

The network became a way to advocate for and give voice to her community, eventually leading Ann to the Halifax Chamber, where she met Gail Adams, a former employee, and former Chamber President Valerie Payn. “They encouraged me and opened the door for the women in our network to meet business leaders,” she says.

Making room for inclusivity

Ann’s passion for advocacy and inclusion is rooted in her upbringing. “I was raised inclusive,” she says. “We didn’t call it inclusivity, but we knew that you needed to share what you have. If you were in a better position than someone else, you needed to give support and assistance to that person.”

Ann recalls her and her family sharing everything they could with others in their village. “People would come by, and there was a bed for them. There was food, there was warmth. It was given,” she says. “We were always told to give, and give, and you will receive. That attitude is now part of my core values. People often say to me, ‘Well, you didn’t have to give all of that.’ I say that I have given it—because more will come. Why hoard it when somebody else can make use of it?”

Her family used a powerful image to describe the practice of inclusivity, and it’s one that Ann plans to apply during her time as Chair. “The other thing that I learned from my parents about inclusivity is that if there was no room at the table, you extended the table,” she says. “I’m going to take that same attitude towards inclusivity to the board.”

Growing up, Ann’s dining room table was extended with leaves so that anyone who came for lunch on Saturday, the Sabbath, could eat with them at the table. “Create room at the table,” says Ann. “Regardless of who you are—your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, your age—everyone has room at my table because we can all learn from each other. By extending the table, we lower the biases that we may have about each other. We get to know each other, and we develop our cultural intelligence.”

Making space at the table means that everyone is afforded the opportunity to succeed, with support. “Because I didn’t get here by myself,” says Ann. “I am privileged and thankful for those individuals who encircled me, embraced me, and helped my business to flourish. They helped me to get here today, where I’m going to be taking up the role of Chair.”

Ann appreciates the support she has also experienced in the Chamber community. “As I prepare to step into this new role, I’ve been overwhelmed with the amount of encouragement people have offered me,” she says. “I don’t see anyone who’s setting me up to fail. I see people who want me to stand tall on their shoulders and enjoy the journey.”

Patrick Sullivan, Halifax Chamber President and CEO, is happy to lend his support. “I am very excited to welcome Ann as Chair. Her dedication to diversity, experience as a small business owner, and confidence in the local business community make her the ideal person to lead our Board this year. Her clear vision and optimism will no doubt have a positive impact on our members. I look forward to helping her make her vision a reality in any way that I can.”

Oversight through hindsight, insight, and foresight

Ann has sat on several boards both provincially and nationally. She is honoured to take up her position as Chair at the Halifax Chamber of Commerce and be of service to her community.

Her approach to governance is led by vision, providing responsible oversight through self-reflection, strategic planning, and collaboration. “My vision is to govern in a way that is inclusive—to lead with hindsight,” she says. “Because we have to look back into our past to move forward as a board. Oversight is about taking responsibility for our past and applying that knowledge to the bigger picture.”

Along with inclusive governance, we require insight into the current moment and the near future. “It means asking, what are some of the hard decisions that we have to make?” she says. “Halifax will have a new mayor soon. How are we going to work collaboratively with all levels of government? That is critical to consider for the growth and development of our business community.”

Foresight is also a crucial element when it comes to governance and advocacy for Ann. “We must be able to see what is coming down the line for our members,” she says. “In order for us to advocate for our members, we must be able to have long term vision.”

Finally, Ann emphasizes the importance of equality and cohesion on the Board of Directors. “For me, it’s collaborative,” she says. “How do I work with my fellow board members? Because I’m there at their behest, and I’m no better than they are. We are all directors and leaders of this amazing organization—the oldest Chamber of Commerce in North America.”

Witnessing growth and change in Halifax

In 2014, Ann was working on a program called the Business Cohort for Women’s Leadership. The program would fill a gap in leadership training for Black women and women of colour in Halifax. She was in a meeting with the Black Business Initiative, who went on to fund the program, when she paused to take in the view. “As I looked out the window on that Saturday morning, I counted 17 cranes in the city,” she says. “Now, if that is not change, what is?”

Our changing city skyline is a visible indication of change in Halifax. “Halifax is still growing,” says Ann. “We have more people coming into our province, and the people who are coming want to grow as well. The pandemic has done something for us: it’s thrown us into the limelight, and people see this as a desirable place to be.”

Change has also brought challenges. “I’m concerned about housing and the high cost of living because that is a crisis,” says Ann. “I’m also concerned about food insecurity. How can we, as a Chamber, continue to advocate for our business community and our broader community? We might not be able to give direct financial support, but it is critical that we continue to give moral support, advocacy, and draw attention to these issues.”

Despite current struggles in the city, Ann is optimistic. “Sometimes we have a tendency not to want to change,” she says. “So, we need to continue to have those meaningful conversations about growth and development. But I’m positive about the work that our Chamber is doing, and I’m positive about the growth in our community.”

The year ahead

Ann is approaching her year as Chair with determination and with eyes open. “I know it’s going to be hard,” she says. “I know that as a board we will have difficult, uncomfortable conversations. We will make mistakes, and we will have challenging times. But I believe, at the end of the day, we will get through those challenges if we work together. It is important to me that we leave the boardroom with one voice.”

Outgoing Chair Chris-Cowper Smith is confident that Ann can tackle the challenges of the role. “Ann is a remarkable business leader and thought leader,” he says. “As Chair last year, I had the opportunity to see her collaborative and inclusive approach firsthand. I have no doubt that she will continue to ensure that the Chamber remains the partner our members need as our city undergoes transformative growth.”

The Chamber’s efforts in diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion are energizing for Ann. “We have a bright future ahead of us because of who we are as a Chamber,” she says. “The Chamber is more diverse now than ever, and that is exciting. I know that the Chamber team has worked hard on this because we’ve worked together on diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and the Amplifying Voices research study. The Chamber is working toward each of its goals in diversity and inclusion, and I can see the results of that work manifesting.”

Ann looks forward to working with familiar and new faces as Chair. “The new individuals coming onto the board are passionate about what they’re coming into, and that means a lot,” she says. “Participating with passion, enthusiasm, and diversity around the table is what gives us our competitive advantage, and that competitive advantage is going to strengthen our organization and benefit our members.

“It is an exciting time to be in Halifax,” says Ann. “We can see increased prosperity on the horizon for all of us—not just in Halifax but across our province. Our growing gross domestic product, green economy, and technology industry will bring more business and the right economic growth to our city. The opportunity to be a part of this is humbling for me, especially since I first arrived as a reluctant Briton in Nova Scotia.”

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story

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