Spotlights

Sonia Molodecky improves the way business and communities work together through the Global Indigenous Development Trust.

July 14, 2015

For as far back as she can remember, Sonia Molodecky had an interest in how the world works—and a desire to change it for the better. So when it came time to choose a profession, she opted for a path that would allow her to make the biggest difference—the law.

“Law is the underpinning of what makes a society function,” she explains. “A good regulatory and legal framework makes or breaks a society in a large respect. I was interested in understanding how the law functions and how it can be used to help societies grow.”

Before she even started law school, Sonia began to acquire the skills that could best help her succeed in her endeavour. She pursued a degree in Criminal Justice and Public Policy and a minor in Spanish, at the University of Guelph and, while there, took a six-month internship at the Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico, to help her learn Spanish—a skill she assumed would come in handy in what was increasingly a globalized marketplace.

“I always had a passion and interest for travelling. I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to go abroad, experience different cultures and bring the knowledge back.”

She enjoyed her time in Mexico and was eager to extend her stay to get more involved—ideally through Mexico’s political and legal systems. So she asked around and eventually landed a summer internship with a Congressman who was the President of the new Commission of Human Rights and Justice. As an advisor to the president of the commission, Sonia helped create and implement its policies, improving the status of human rights in the country in the process.

“We compared a lot of best practices, shared Canadian examples and showed them how to make things better—and make the commission successful,” she says.

Making history
Shortly after returning to Canada, Sonia started her law degree at the University of Ottawa—and a few months into it, the Orange Revolution began in Ukraine. Being of Ukrainian heritage, this issue hit close to home for Sonia, so she applied to be an international election observer with CANADEM.

She represented the Canadian Government for the Ukrainian Presidential elections, a job that involved attending voting polls in a rather high-risk area of Eastern Ukraine.

“We were not welcome in that part of the country, and it was a little bit scary at times. There were a lot of things being done improperly —stuff I’d read about in text books but it was something else to see it in action. We couldn’t make any comments or change the way things were being done, but I recorded my observations and was able to offer the results to the UN that were later used to determine the status of “free and fair” elections and what the issues were that hindered a truly democratic process.”

When the election was over, and Sonia returned to Canada, she once again had an urge to return and further explore what she started. So as she continued her legal studies, she searched for an internship opportunity that would take her back to Ukraine.

“Being an election observer was so interesting. After the Democratic party won, I wanted to go back and see how it panned out,” she says. “I set my heart on it and emailed hundreds of organizations to find an internship. I ended up getting one with the UNDP and was contracted to work with a Canadian lawyer who was the senior legal advisor to the Prime Minister of Ukraine on legal and democratic reform. It was an incredible experience.”

During the internship, she once again helped draft important policies and made recommendations to the Prime Minister to assist the country in meeting its Millennium Development Goals—goals established by the UN to set standards for democratic reform, accountability, transparency and other forms of governance.

“It was so interesting to see a country work towards making a complete 180 degree change to its system, towards becoming a democratic society. With the current situation in Ukraine, my experience working there has definitely given me a new appreciation for the difficulties that lie ahead for Ukraine.”

The value of business
Sonia completed one more internship in February 2007 during her law exchange in Buenos Aires, Argentina—with the Public Defender’s Office in Argentina, where she managed files involving human rights violations and other offenses of minors and the mentally incapacitated—before graduating law school later that year.

At that point, she came to the stark realization that, to truly change the world, working in the private sector might be a better bet.

“After having those experiences with the UN, government offices and the public defender’s office in Argentina, I realized that, while they were very well intentioned, there wasn’t the capacity for large-scale change in those institutions—and I found that frustrating,” she admits. “I discovered, after talking to people who were in business, that business is really the force for change—for good or bad. I wanted to be part of something that was driving change, innovation and ideas that could impact the world.”

She took a deep interest in business and understanding how business shapes society. To achieve this, she believed the skills she could acquire at a law firm would be a natural progression in her learning, so she applied to a number of firms for her articling internship and eventually joined Osler.

Her time at Osler was definitely an education. On her second day of articling, she was thrown into a boardroom for the acquisition of Alliance Atlantis Communications by CanWest and Goldman Sachs. Sonia hit the ground running—at a lightning-fast pace.

“It was a huge deal—things were going on in the middle of the night, papers were flying—it was a lot of pressure. It’s what you’d call diving into the deep end,” she recalls with a laugh.

“What stands out about that time was how wonderful the partners were. I remember them sitting with us at 2 am once all the madness of the day had somewhat settled down, and walking us through the details of the deal so we could better understand what we were doing. It was such an interesting opportunity and, although it was quite a high pressure situation, it was a tremendous learning experience.”

Identifying a market need
Sonia stayed at Osler as an associate until 2010, when she left for Borden Ladner Gervais to ultimately help the firm launch its Latin American practice as its national chair.

“After almost four years at BLG, and working in Latin America, I saw a lot of conflicts between businesses and communities, particularly in the natural resource sector, which resulted in a lot of projects being stopped or stalled costing in the millions and billions of dollars – where no one was winning. I realized there was an opportunity for collaboration rather than conflict—an opportunity for both sides to benefit,” she says. “On the business side, most Canadian companies were interested in doing things the right way and doing things better. On the other side, communities wanted to thrive and develop. But there was a gap between the two preventing either from moving forward.”

Sonia met with some Canadian Aboriginal leaders who had found ways to effectively work with industry and benefit their communities over the past 30 years in Canada. Her business partner, a preeminent Canadian Aboriginal leader from BC, Jerry Asp, had taken his community in BC from 98% unemployment to 0%, through effective collaboration with the mining and energy sector, while still maintaining their culture. She believed a similar model would work in Latin America, and could prove incredibly beneficial, given the region’s growing resource development sector.

So she started her current organization—a not-for-profit, social enterprise called Global Indigenous Development Trust that also has a for-profit division called Equilibria Partnerships. The enterprise serves both communities and companies, helping bridge the divide in the natural resource sector by acting as independent advisors that build trust with communities to understand how to work with industry and benefit from resource development (with the help of  their Aboriginal Advisory), and help companies understand the real interests of the communities in order to best mitigate risks and enable true win-win partnerships.  They are working to develop a new model for resource development where everyone benefits from its fast potential.

“It’s been a pretty crazy year and a half learning to be an entrepreneur. Ultimately, I’d like to be in a position where we’ve helped a lot of communities and companies, and brought some stability to Latin America,” she says. “I’d eventually like to share these models and best practices for successful resource development in other areas of the world.”

“Business can be an incredible driver for good. There’s a lot of misinformation about the perils of business and the resource sector. The mining sector is actually a leader in so many areas in terms of environmental stewardship and community service. There’s an opportunity to share that information in a better way and promote some of the good things that are happening.”

Making time for Sonia
Although her business endeavours keep her incredibly busy and travelling around the world constantly, she firmly believes that taking time for herself throughout the day makes her long days much more sustainable. Most of the time, she squeezes recreational activities in—for example, she takes 20 minutes every morning to meditate, and spends her 45-minute lunch break running outside, regardless  of the weather. When she can, she fits in some yoga too—and, occasionally, she’ll leave the office altogether and head out on an adventure.

Her most memorable one, to date, occurred a couple of years ago when she and a friend decided to hike the Aconcagua—the highest mountain outside of Asia and highest point in the Southern Hemisphere, located in Argentina. It is one of the Seven Summits.

“We hiked it with very little training, but we made it—although it was very tough. We got to base camp just in time for New Year’s, and of course, being in Argentina, the guide group brought up 30 cases of champagne and wine, and a lot of beef. We had a steak barbeque on top of the world in classic Argentine style!”

 

To listen to the full interview, please click here.

 

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