Ishma Alexander-Huet: A fearless champion for change

—On Tuesday we released our first annual Mighty Women List, a celebration of women doing amazing things across the industry. Today, we share our first profile from that list, Initiative Media’s VP, client advice and management, head of learning and culture—

There have been a number of defining moments during Ishma Alexander-Huet’s 20-year professional journey. One of the biggest came a few years ago, when her young daughter Niara, now nine, asked if she could straighten her hair like her mom. “I was just like absolutely not, I can’t be part of this for another generation,” says Alexander-Huet, who had long believed she had to wear her hair straight, constantly pressing it and treating it with chemicals and heat. “I did that to fit in at work,” she says.

When Alexander-Huet started in the industry in the early 2000s, she saw few other Black people around her, and none in leadership roles. The office didn’t feel like a place where she could be herself, so she acted in ways that would be “the least offensive as possible.” On the few occasions she wore her hair natural, there were too many “nice hairstyle” comments—the kind that made her “shrink within,” she says.

Some bosses were simply prejudiced, while others did things like hire an image consultant to talk to the agency about presenting themselves more “professionally.” “I was like ‘Damn, I’m going to have to go and straighten my hair again.'”

Other bosses thought they were being progressive, but didn’t understand systemic racism. “They advocated for me to an extent, but not fully,” she said. And now, as VP at Initiative Media, Alexander-Huet is going to advocate and she’s going to advocate hard. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

So when Niara told her she wanted straight hair, Alexander-Huet realized she wasn’t going to do it anymore. “I thought about the juniors who were coming into the industry, and I realized that every time they see me with my hair all slicked, I’m sending them the message that to get to this level they have to assimilate, and I don’t want to do that.”

Today Alexander-Huet leads the largest client portfolio at Initiative—which includes RBC, Wendy’s and Lego—and is also head of learning and culture at the MediaBrands agency. “Ishma has a rare blend of exceptional strategic and analytical skills, combined with an incredibly high degree of intuition, empathy, and desire to drive positive change,” said Helen Galanis, CEO at Initiative Canada. “[She] has had tremendous impact as both a business and people leader.”

Along with Niara, Alexander-Huet is also a mother of two sons, Malachi and Jadon, aged 23 and 15, and has added even more to her plate since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. That was a “flip the table” moment, she says. “I’m not going to be disrespectful, but I’m going to say what is on my mind and whoever doesn’t like it, really the problem sits with them and not me.”

She’s taken on active leadership roles with both POCAM and the Code Black Communicator Network, and late last summer wrote a well-received eight-part series for MediaInCanada about her personal experiences of being a Black woman in media and how the industry can learn—and be better—from those experiences.

“She leads with vulnerability and honesty, while getting her hands dirty to make our industry better,” says Mighty Women juror Aleena Mazhar, managing director at Fuse Create, and part of POCAM steering committee. “I’m so proud of her being on this list, and value our friendship so greatly.”

Ishma and her son Malachi in Kenya 2019.

“Ishma is an incredibly talented media professional, as her career attests,” adds Gavin Barrett, also part of the POCAM steering committee. “But as a Black woman in our industry she has had to overcome more obstacles than most to rise to a position of senior leadership.

“That takes courage, perseverance, intelligence and confidence… It deserves massive respect.”

Alexander-Huet often gets asked how finds the time to do so much beyond her client responsibilities: “I’m in media,” she says with a wry smile. “I know people watch at least 20 hours of video content a week. Take a couple of hours and put it towards something else.”

But she spends time on it because it is so important.

All the client work gets done, and gets done very well. It has to when you work for top-tier clients RBC, Wendy’s and Lego. But a couple of hours a week toward an issue as important as equity and diversity, isn’t a problem. “Emergencies get dealt with, of course,” she says. “But everyone’s going to sell burgers tomorrow. Everyone’s going to open accounts tomorrow [even if] I take an extra hour out of today, so that’s sort of the way I look it.”

“My objective is to help Black Canadians thrive in business,” she says. And there are three pillars to doing that well. One is being part of the community, being active with groups like Code Black and the Black employee network at MediaBrands (which she co-founded), and being open to connecting with anyone who needs her help. The other is being an advocate and speaking out more often. “POCAM is where we do a lot of that,” she says.

And the last piece is simply being an example of someone who can make it, that means being good at her job, but it also means doing it without comprising who she is. “Because I definitely was, but I’m not compromising my sense of self anymore.”

That’s still an act of defiance for many Black people, particularly Black women. And when you’re the VP of a leading media agency, it’s the kind of act that shows change is possible and empowers others to demand it. “I think I’m proudest of the fact that I’ve just decided to be me,” she says. “Just embraced who I am and have spoken out because in the beginning it was scary.”

Ishma Alexander-Huet isn’t scared anymore, and she’ll do whatever she damn well pleases with her hair.

David Brown