A young face in an unconventional space: the insights of a millennial diplomat
Kayla Slobodnik, Executive Policy advisor at Global Affairs Canada
What comes to mind when you hear Global Affairs Canada (GAC)?
For me, top of mind would always be topics like diplomacy, international relations, and foreign policy, until we sat down with one of GAC’s emerging leaders, Kayla Slobodnik, Executive Policy Advisor to Chief Trade Commissioner, Sara Wilshaw, to discuss their work on international business (IB).
The Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) within GAC supports the growth of Canadian businesses through innovative programs, and exposure to commercial opportunities in over 160 markets around the world. We caught up with Kayla and she gave us the inside scoop on life as a former Trade Commissioner turned Policy Advisor, working in the field of international business, and overcoming barriers as a young woman of colour in an unconventional workspace.
An atypical subject matter expert
“Business is beyond just transactions between producers and consumers. For us, it’s about how we can best improve client services and help high potential and high performing companies become more agile in the ever-changing digital sphere and be successful in international markets.”
It was immediately clear from the start of the interview that Kayla is an incredibly engaging, dynamic, and well-rounded young professional. As she explains, her role is to “help companies create their IB plans from the strategic perspective of helping them grow, gain capital, and expand their footprint abroad.” With the continuing evolution of the digital sphere, particularly its rapid advancement during the pandemic, Kayla shares that much of her focus now is on navigating IB practices in a digital context. “Business is beyond just transactions between producers and consumers. For us, it’s about how we can best improve client services and help high potential and high performing companies become more agile in the ever-changing digital sphere and be successful in international markets.” For example, one of the challenges now is creating opportunities to build meaningful relationships digitally— replicating something that once often took place informally in person, over dinner or coffee. This is where the TCS comes in: providing funding, mentorship and access to key partners which will help them tackle challenges and build relationships in their markets.
Achieving success internationally goes hand in hand with the work that the TCS’ Regional Office Network across Canada puts in domestically. “They intersect in a unique way; it would be difficult to help businesses reach international markets without first receiving dedicated support here at home,” Kayla tells us. For example, clean technology companies, “need to be given a shot to showcase their work here in Canada. You can’t get a buyer abroad unless there’s evidence of the product working domestically first.” The TCS offers these opportunities by facilitating virtual trade shows, conferences, and seminars.
Representing the underrepresented
“Women find that it is difficult to access capital, as lenders tend to give them a harder time,”
We speak at length about the countless challenges entrepreneurs face, and Kayla highlights the reality that women entrepreneurs still face substantial obstacles. For example, “women find that it is difficult to access capital, as lenders tend to give them a harder time,” she elaborates. Accessing capital is crucial to establishing an international presence. This is why the TCS offers support through its CanExport program and its own Trade Commissioners, who facilitate introductions to venture funds and private lenders, to increase engagement in various markets. The TCS is keen on supporting women owned businesses by offering an array of services that provide opportunities and networks for women specifically.
Kayla also talks about programs within the TCS that support underrepresented exporters. The TCS defines underrepresented peoples as women, members of the LGBTQ2+ community, racialized Canadians, Black and Indigenous entrepreneurs, new Canadians, and youth. The TCS hosts virtual trade missions and facilitates introductions to supplier diversity organizations which are tailored to support but are not exclusive to these specific groups.
A woman of all trades
Kayla is a quick learner, and she’s ambitious—two qualities that help drive her work and bring her closer to achieving her extensive professional goals. In an ideal world, her role would involve significant travel. Pre-pandemic, she worked in San Francisco where she had the opportunity to help Canadian companies expand internationally through the TCS’ Canadian Technology Accelerator program. While mindful of public health and safety requirements, she’s looking forward to being able to travel again and broaden her skillsets even more. “I have interests in international security and emergency management—supporting Canadians in dire situations—and I am willing to adapt my professional circumstances in order to continue to learn.”
At the beginning of the pandemic Kayla was Deputy Chief of Operations for Canada’s largest repatriation effort. Working around the clock, Kayla along with her diverse team helped bring back over 50,000 Canadians on over 700 flights in a matter of months. It was her first time working with Canadian citizens in crisis and it challenged her issues management skills. “It was very difficult but incredibly rewarding,” Kayla says.
A young face in an unconventional space
“Being young, being black and being a woman can make it difficult to provide advice. I have faced judgement from people based on these factors,”
Being a qualified executive at the age of 28 is a proud accomplishment for Kayla, but it has also presented interesting obstacles. “Being young, being black and being a woman can make it difficult to provide advice. I have faced judgement from people based on these factors,” she says. “It’s interesting because the fact that I have a European last name has really brought this to my attention. I’ve noticed that when I send an email to someone who has yet to meet me, it’s usually received well. But sometimes perceptions can change when people see me in person.”
My colleague asked Kayla how she works through these challenges. “I had to become somewhat fearless and develop a thick skin. I have to really remind myself that it’s not a criticism of me, but of a biased perception of me,” Kayla shares.
Expanding global reach
With economies re-opening, companies are preparing to reignite their businesses again and diversify globally. Kayla and the team at TCS are keen on helping companies grow their businesses and establish an international footprint in this new environment. More information about GAC’s Trade Commissioner Service, as well as the programs, resources, and exporter opportunities they offer can be found on the TCS website.
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