Her Career: Jennifer Flanagan, CEO at Actua, Canada’s Largest STEM Outreach Organization

Jennifer Flanagan is the co-founder and CEO of Actua, a national charitable organization that engages Canadian youth in STEM experiences. Through partnering with the corporate sector, governments and other non-profits, Jennifer has led the charge in developing STEM outreach programs that engage underserved youth populations, including girls and young women, Indigenous youth, youth living in rural and remote communities, and other at-risk youth.

This week, she’ll be featured as part of Women in Tech Week (April 30-May 4), which recognizes female leaders across the country making waves in the tech space. 

SDTC: Did you ever envision yourself as CEO of a tech charity?

JF: I cannot recall having specific career aspirations as a child and I initially went into science in university because I didn’t know what else to do. Despite attending career days and reading books like What Colour is Your Parachute? in university, all I ever knew for sure was that I wanted to help and I wanted to lead.

Running a charity like Actua has enabled me to have a career I love, which also fulfills both of my lifelong aspirations. I am excited to go to work every single day and I hope that my path will set an example for young females eager to lead.

What does a typical day look like for you?

There is no typical day in our house and I travel a lot; however, most mornings start with 5:15 a.m. yoga and meditation followed by an organic breakfast for my family from scratch using eggs from our hen Aphrodite. JUST KIDDING! I wake up and try to get as much coffee into my body as humanly possible. I then yell at someone, trip over something and madly rush to get my little girls and myself out the door.

Once in CEO mode, my days are spent advocating for the work of Actua in meetings with government, corporations and other stakeholders. I check in with team to see if there are any bottlenecks they are struggling with and many days I am speaking at events. I have lunch at my desk so I can get to the gym several times a week.

My superpower is being able to get ready for a black-tie event in under thirty minutes, but most nights I try to be home in the early evening for the kids’ homework, bath and bedtime. Later hours are for email, TV or wine with a girlfriend. I should likely sleep more.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your work with Actua?

My business philosophy at Actua has always been that “we need to stay relevant and excellent.” This has never failed to bring us opportunities and resources to grow our work. Actua is now celebrating its 25th anniversary but I still challenge myself to keep running it like a start-up. I make sure we never rest on our success; we’re constantly innovating, reinventing and hustling.

Why is it important to you to break down barriers and get more kids access to STEM experiences?

Science and technology backs virtually every area of our lives, including healthcare, the environment, food and housing. Youth need STEM literacy to not only pursue the ample jobs that are in these fields but also to move through their lives as responsible, contributing, happy citizens. My goal is to go beyond getting more women and Indigenous youth into STEM. I want them in leadership positions, making decisions and influencing STEM fields so as to transform our country for the better, both socially and economically.

What are some stories from the Actua team that have inspired you personally?

I have the BEST staff anywhere and am inspired by them every day. They are a team composed of great passion, the biggest brains, and huge capacity. Throughout our travels, I get to see and hear about the impact of our work in communities across the country. One of my favourite things is meeting young Canadians who want to use science and technology to change the world. It makes me hopeful that almost all youth I encounter have a social justice angle integrated into their future plans.

Looking back over your career, would you have done anything differently?

I would have loved to have done my PhD at Harvard prior to having kids, and I wish I had kept my French perfect; however, these just might be the perfect retirement plans…

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