Erin Elaine Casey

Halifax Chamber welcomes Cynthia Dorrington as Chair of the Board

Cynthia Dorrington has a goal: to build a more diverse and inclusive business community — and a Chamber that reflects that community. She believes we must speak our goals out loud to create accountability to ourselves and others.

“If I can build bridges and provide avenues for intersections to occur and discussions to take place and make this a Chamber that is worthy of our entire business community, that to me is the ultimate success,” she says. “That’s an audacious goal, but we have to say it.”

Dorrington took over as Chair of the Board of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce in April. As the first African Nova Scotian to hold the position, she knows expectations are high. She’s been preparing for this moment since she joined the Board in 2014, serving first as chair of the HR and Governance Committee, and then as Vice Chair of the Board. Taking over as Chair was an easy decision, she explains, “Because I believe in helping business grow, stimulating the economy and I have a unique perspective as the representative of a diverse business. The Chamber is not just for mainstream organizations. The door is open for all.”

Born and raised in New Glasgow, Dorrington is one of six children. Her father, Francis, was the first African Nova Scotian to sit on New Glasgow’s Town Council. Elected in 1976, he remained on Council for 21 years, several of them as Deputy Mayor. “He stepped outside the norm,” she says, “and my parents always supported us in fulfilling our dreams.”

Family remains important to Dorrington. With her husband, Wayne, she has three stepchildren living all over Canada: in Halifax, Saskatoon and Yellowknife. She became a proud first time grandmother in November 2017 and is now planning a trip to Saskatoon to meet the new addition.

She is also in business with her sister, Cassandra Dorrington. Together, they own and operate Vale & Associates. Established in 2004, Vale is a boutique consulting firm specializing in strategic management, business consulting and contractual HR services to organizations around the world, including Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, Central America and the continent of Africa. The company is named after Vale Road, the New Glasgow neighbourhood the Dorringtons grew up in.

As President of Vale & Associates, Dorrington consults with small- to medium-sized organizations across various industry sectors. She specializes in helping companies experiencing challenges with mergers and acquisitions, business growth, culture change and succession planning. She works in organizational and people strategy, diversity and inclusion, change management, governance, organizational assessments, supplier diversity, performance management, project management, HR advisory, training and development and team building. She brings all these skills and more to her new role at the Chamber.

Dorrington’s path to self-employment wasn’t exactly typical. After graduating from high school, she moved to Halifax and found work in the high-tech telecommunications sector, where she stayed for about 20 years. While she was employed at MT&T, specialized retraining was offered to just 25 employees. Dorrington was chosen from hundreds of applicants to go through the customized program to augment the corporation’s IT division.

“In the beginning, not one of us knew IT,” she jokes. “After completion of the program I entered the IT division and oversaw various programs and then migrated into the role of a system administrator, which was a non-traditional role at the time. There were very few women in that field.” She was involved in Y2K upgrades, but in 2001 Dorrington was downsized along with a whole group of people. She moved to an international call centre as a system support manager. Coincidentally, in 2004 Dorrington and her sister Cassandra were downsized at around the same time. The two of them agreed to start a business, run it for a year and see how it went. “We enjoyed ourselves so much in year-one that we decided to go into year two. Vale is still in business and we work all over the world!” Dorrington now holds both CPA and CMA designations and has been running Vale & Associates for 14 years.

Being the first African Nova Scotian Chair of the Halifax Chamber is both exciting and a little overwhelming for Dorrington. “You know, history is going to be made, but at the same time, it’s the unknown. The unknown can be daunting. Ultimately, I am who I am — and I will do what I can to make sure the mandate, mission and vision of the Chamber are achieved,” she says. And she is keenly aware of how important her new position is to the African Nova Scotian community. “Making this move for my community is a big deal, because this is the oldest Chamber in North America. But it’s also a coming of age, because African Nova Scotians have been in Nova Scotia for over 400 years. I see this as monumental not only for the Chamber but for my community.”

So far, the feedback from her community has been very positive, according to Dorrington. “How do we build and strengthen our diverse membership? A lot of Chamber members are not from diverse communities,” she explains. “A lot of people are now saying, ‘Wow! I need to learn more about the Chamber.’ It’s about time.”

Dorrington is no stranger to community building, and has worked hard for years to bring diversity to the corridors of power. In addition to her role at the Chamber, she is Chair of the Board for the Black Business Initiative (BBI), Chair of HR and Governance for the Africville Heritage Trust, and Chair of Governance for Hospice Halifax. Previously, she Chaired the Governance Committee of the Board of the Greater Halifax Partnership, was President of the Halifax Cornwallis Chapter of the Canadian Progress Club, a member of the Police Chief’s Diversity Advisory Committee, and volunteered for 16 years with the Telephone Pioneers, to name just a few of her volunteer activities.

Having an African Nova Scotian woman at the helm of the Chamber is an important development for black, immigrant and other professionals who might not feel adequately represented in the public life of this city. “What we’re going to see is change. Having somebody like me at the helm is an opportunity to promote diversity, but at the same time we must come together and say what we need going forward,” Dorrington says.

“We need to have voices at the right tables, those decision-making tables and it’s important for my community to be there. I might wear a business hat and have that in common with most of our membership, but I do think differently and I’ve had different experiences as an African Nova Scotian and also as a woman. I don’t resonate just as a woman in business. I’m a black woman in business and there are other issues that go along with that.”

Many friends and relatives have provided guidance and support to Dorrington along the way. “At the end of the day, you have to have your supporters and the people in your corner — having your touch points and the people you can sit down and talk to is very important.”

She wants to give a special shout out to Rustum Southwell, CEO of the BBI. “He has really guided me, helped me to achieve and made me the person I am today,” she says. She had always done volunteer work and Southwell encouraged her to apply for the first merged Board of the Halifax Partnership. “I sat on that board for seven years and it was so much fun and I learned a lot about myself and about being a Board member. Rustum was on the Nominating Committee for the Halifax Chamber, and he put my name forward for the Chamber Board. When [past chair] Rob Batherson asked me to Chair the HR and Governance Committee a couple of years later, I said sure! Without Rustum, the Chamber might not have someone from the African Nova Scotian community on the Board today.”

When asked what she’s most looking forward to during her time as Chair, Dorrington laughs. “My biggest goal is making it through the year! It’s going to be a fast year and I’m going to work very closely with my team at the Chamber. There’s no I in team.”

Her first and foremost objective is ensuring the Chamber is reflecting the many different entrepreneurs, organizations and institutions that make up Halifax’s business landscape. “I want to make sure the Chamber is reflective of all our potential clients. One important area is the not-for-profit sector, which is greatly needed but often overlooked. I really want to focus on how the Chamber works with them — how can we advocate for them and make sure they’re promoted?

It’s always hard to find sponsorships and funding — and the public doesn’t always understand what they do.” She points out that charitable organizations usually don’t have the same opportunities for marketing and promotion that for-profit enterprises do. She hopes to promote strategic partnerships. “All sectors are needed in our business community. Sometimes we don’t consider the challenges faced by not-for-profits, and they’re the ones who struggle the most.”

With her sights set firmly on diversifying the Chamber membership, looking for ways to promote strategic partnerships between different organizations and representing her African Nova Scotian community, Dorrington is excited to get started on her year as Halifax Chamber Chair. Her key message is one of co-operation, inclusion and openness to new ideas, people and ways of doing things.

“I want to set the stage for others to follow and allow them to realize there’s nothing to fear. We’re all talking the same language and we all have the same dream. We all dream. We all dream of being successful, and that’s different for different people — let us all dream collectively together, no matter what success means to us.”

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