Depending on your perspective, the sight of a young Stephanie Garrett with her nose pressed to the wall of her grade school – a punishment for defending a friend in gym class – might be seen as an act of disobedience, or a foreshadowing of a person who is hardwired to stand up to injustice.
What was probably obvious then, as it is today, is this is a person who isn’t afraid of accepting challenges head-on.
“While I am passionate about women’s issues, the overarching theme in my life resides in a genuine value of equality, and of valuing all people’s stories, experiences and voices,” Garrett says. “This is why I have chosen to advocate for issues and for groups that have been traditionally marginalized.”
A born-and-raised Calgarian, Garrett credits travel and her exposure to diverse international cultures and environments for fuelling her passion for international development work. Since 2001, she has filled the pages of her passport while volunteering and working in Costa Rica, Chile, Honduras, Southeast Asia, India, Europe and San Francisco.
Her efforts span a range of initiatives, including teaching English to Tibetan refugee women in India, volunteering with a group in Chile to address reproductive health and violence against women, and working with CUSO in Honduras to forecast how the Central American Free Trade Agreement will affect rural women.
In 2006, the then-26-year-old Garrett was presented with another challenge – the opportunity to lead the creation of the University of Calgary’s new Women’s Resource Centre. With a staff of three, including herself, along with a volunteer force of 75, the centre provides support for wellness, leadership and diversity for 5,000 students, and occasionally to the parents of first-year students.
The Women’s Centre, not surprisingly, mirrors its executive director’s penchant for pushing down barriers and crossing borders – traditional, figurative and otherwise.
For Garrett, the answer was to get, in her words, “loads of people involved, not just women, and harness what’s great here in Calgary – and that is leadership.”
One way Garrett engaged Calgary leadership was by using previous Top 40 Under 40 lists as a source for finding mentors for the Women’s Resource Centre and the community.
Her creative, accessible philosophy towards building connections has led to the Centre establishing multiple successful partnerships with private, public and non-profit organizations in Calgary and around the world in her three years as its executive director.
Looking forward, Garrett sees the work she’s done as part of a bigger movement.
“I see partnerships and collaboration between organizations that have traditionally been divided by geography, sector, industry and culture as the way forward,” she says.
“The real challenge will be to bring individuals and organizations together to develop a common goal based on common values and a mutual understanding of not only the value, but the necessity of making sustainability – social, environmental, ecological – as the priority.”
Why she’s the top: She’s an innovative and dynamic individual whose life experience has fostered an authentic leadership style.
The key to her success: “I’ve learned to turn the traditional concept of success upside-down and look at it as spanning personal and professional, your spiritual, physical and creative side. It’s all about balance,” Garrett says.