Early in the final round of judging for this year’s Mighty Women List, the jury paused to discuss what kind of message they wanted to send with the women they chose.
A large percentage of the nearly 80 submissions this year were for women who are impressive by any definition, with a long list of accomplishments that most would indeed regard as Mighty.
But The Mighty Women List is not about the most successful or most accomplished. It shouldn’t be about “superwoman” and “all that garbage that we can’t stand being played back at us,” said one judge.
They would consider not just what each nominee had done, but how they did it. The words perseverance and bravery came up—and were used often throughout the judging—as did “inspirational.” These Mighty Women are creating space and clearing paths for others, said one judge—in some cases literally, and others just by showing it was possible. “Women can do way more than they think they are capable of,” said another judge. “Women who don’t think that they can handle a lot of things see these women and it’s inspirational… They think ‘I could get through this because they did.'”
Which gets to the essence of the motivation behind The Mighty Women List. From our early conversations and discussions with Alanna Nathanson and Natalie Armata—our partners in this endeavour, chairs of our jury, and both mighty in their own right—we agreed we wanted The Mighty Women List to be different.
“Unlike other industry awards shows, Mighty Women celebrates the entire woman,” said Armata. “It celebrates her life, resilience, ability to influence and push her world forward in a positive and meaningful way.”
That shared vision has shaped everything about the Mighty Women program from day one, as evidenced by the criteria in the nomination process: biggest obstacles overcome, greatest achievements, and bravest/riskiest moves, each weighed in equal measure.
All of those nominations were reviewed by our seven judges: Ira Baptiste, Mo Bofill (both from our inaugural Mighty Women List 2022); Kate Bate, Kairen Wu, Elana Gorbatyuk, Maxine McDonald, and Arlene Dickinson. After that round, a shortlist was moved forward to the final judging in late February.
“This group of judges brought an incredible balance of different experiences and points of view to the table, while being super respectful and collaborative,” said Nathanson. “There was a lot of passion and thoughtfulness that went into each applicant’s submission, and it was not an easy decision to make.”
“It was so hard for the judges to choose the day of,” said Armata. “The stories that rise to the top are the ones that simply can’t be ignored and need to be shared.”
The Message will share those stories over the rest of this Women’s History Month. But today, on International Women’s Day, we share the entire list and provide brief introductions to our Mighty Women for 2023.
Anna Goodson: President and founder, Anna Goodson Illustration Agency
When Anna Goodson was launching her illustration agency back in 1996, she went to the bank to apply for a loan. The bank manager suggested she come back with her father to co-sign. She felt belittled and discriminated against, but undeterred and still committed to building the world’s most respected illustration agency. Today, Anna Goodson Illustration Agency represents more than 55 top illustrators and animators doing work for clients around the world, but her success isn’t just about the numbers and honours. Cultural diversity and representation of marginalized groups has been central to the agency’s ethos since day one, with Goodson pointing out when there weren’t enough women holding briefcases in illustrations, and believing their work could be a vehicle for social justice.
Jessica Borges: VP, business lead, Koo (Cossette’s internal multicultural agency)
Jessica Borges has risen to the upper echelons of Canadian multicultural marketing in part because of her personal understanding of what it means to be the other: A woman in a male-dominated society, a person of colour in an industry dominated by white people, and an immigrant in a new land. All posed challenges where she had to prove her value while trying to fit in, but she’s used the those experiences to help others. She’s had her short stories celebrating women published in anthologies, works on immigrant inclusion projects, mentors women from cultural minorities, is a champion of marketing diversity, judges awards shows, and has produced award-winning work of her own.
Denise Rossetto: Partner, chief creative officer, Broken Heart Love Affair
Anyone who’s paid any attention to the Canadian ad industry over the last 15 years or so should know Denise Rossetto. Widely regarded as one of the best creatives in the country, she’s won top creative and agency awards in Canada and on the global stage, and opened a new agency which has been turning heads around the world since it launched. All amazing stuff. But what really made Rossetto a Mighty Woman for 2023 is her well-known reputation for lifting others up, for being both a cheerleader and a trailblazer for women in an industry notorious for being hard on women in general, and mothers in particular.
Stephanie Yung: Chief design officer, Zulu Alpha Kilo
Stephanie Yung spent the last decade with renowned New York consultancy Smart Design, and was on track to partnership. But when the pandemic hit, the single mother of a young toddler decided she wanted to leave New York and return to Canada to be closer to family. Since returning to Canada and joining ZAK, Yung has been credited with invigorating the agency’s design offering, doubling the size of its design team, and taking a lead role on the world-famous The Micropedia of Microaggressions, an online tool to help people unlearn their unconscious biases. And as one of the few BIPOC creative leaders in the industry, the work was personal to her.
Nithya Ramachandran: President and CSO, T1
Nithya Ramachandran has grown accustomed to breaking down barriers and showing up places where she was very conspicuously the “only one” in the room. But Ramachandran overcame the challenges that come with those experiences—the self-doubt, the reticence to speak out—by being “unapologetically me,” and showing up as her authentic self. Today, she is one of the rare women of colour leading a Canadian agency. “Even if I had to claw my way into the room and at the table, I make sure that the place I have counts,” she said. “Because if I can carve out that space, I know that I can bring others with me.”
Emily Whetung-MacInnes: Senior advisor, Indigenous relations, Proof Strategies
Technically, Emily Whetung-MacInnes has only been in the industry for less than a year, but she’s done a great deal to prove that she’s a mighty communicator capable of driving big change. After graduating from York University with a law degree in 2010, Whetung-MacInnes practiced law until 2019, when she decided to run for chief of Curve Lake First Nation. She won the election despite having no political experience, and running against a well-known incumbent. During the pandemic, she came up with communications strategies to keep her community safe and drive one of the highest vaccination rates among First Nations in Ontario. And as part of the fight for clean water, she led a class-action lawsuit that led to an $8 billion settlement with Ottawa.
Jo-Ann McArthur: President and founding partner, Nourish Food Marketing
Jo-Ann McArthur has spent more than 38 years in Canadian marketing, during which she has led multiple agencies, held senior roles in the male-dominated worlds of beer and sports, amassed experience in academia, and held multiple extracurricular roles with organizations including The Empire Club of Canada. As a former divisional head with Molson Coors, she negotiated sports sponsorships for the beer giant’s portfolio of brands, earning a reputation as a shrewd negotiator. Among her signature achievements is organizing 2003’s SARS benefit concert Molson Canadian Rocks (AKA “SARSStock”), which attracted some of the biggest bands in the world. Today, she is president of Nourish Food Marketing, Canada’s first full-service agency dedicated to the food and beverage industry.
Shannon Ricketts: Senior digital and print buyer, Innocean
Shannon Ricketts has spent the past five years dealing with physical and mental torment, yet colleagues say that her energy, wisdom, and continued advocacy for women have never flagged. Ricketts was thriving in her senior buying role with Innocean when her life was upended by a 2018 diagnosis of cervical cancer. Since then, she has endured multiple rounds of chemo, two abdominal surgeries, and external and internal radiation treatments. “Not sure I’ve overcome anything, but battling cancer has definitely been my biggest obstacle in life,” she said. The cancer is incurable and no longer responding to chemo alone, but Ricketts said it’s important to recognize that her story isn’t a one-off. “There are probably many women and men in our industry who have had to juggle treatment for cancer while continuing to work either out of need or necessity or both,” she said.
Aleena Mazhar: SVP, managing director, Fuse Create
Aleena Mazhar was just 17 when her parents arrived in Canada from Saudi Arabia. Being a Muslim from the Middle East was difficult in those years after Sept. 11, and Mazhar coped by concealing her true values in an attempt to “westernize” herself. That went on for about 12 years, until she eventually realized the power of her voice and used it to inform other new immigrants about her background and experience. Today, she is a vocal supporter of immigrants, newcomers, and BIPOC marketers, including board work on behalf of People of Colour in Advertising and Marketing. Mazhar has spent the past seven-and-a-half years at Fuse Create, and was instrumental in building the XM practice that grew to nearly 40% of the agency’s revenues. When XM revenues dried up during the pandemic, she again played a key role in an agency pivot—a move that contributed to a 30% increase in business.
Vanessa Cherenfant: VP, business lead, consulting practice, Cossette
Early in her career, Vanessa Cherenfant asked her employer for a mentor that could help put her on a career path towards management. They told her she was being “too aggressive,” and suggested she dial down her ambition. She saw this for the bias it was, and knew she would work to improve the representation of women and minorities to ensure their voices were heard. Cherenfant has long demonstrated her ability to go it alone. She left family in Haiti to go to school in Canada, where she studied engineering. She started out in operational performance at Bombardier before moving into tech and eventually arriving at Cossette. Along the way, she’s started a podcast, worked with young tech startups, build mentorship programs and sits on the boards of major organizations