Immigrating to another country is no easy feat—from the time you’ve decided to move to the moment you finally arrive. How do you settle down? How can you create new relationships? How can you start on the path towards the life you want? Olga Stachova, CEO of MOSAIC, helps people who are in this challenging journey. MOSAIC is one of Canada’s largest settlement organizations supporting newcomers as they’re building their new life in the country. Olga sits down with host, Douglas Nelson, to share with us the wonderful work they have been doing and how they are coping with the pandemic and moving forward. She taps into the many weaknesses of the society that have been revealed during this time, providing us great information about the many inequities faced by newcomers, especially when it comes to scarce job opportunities. She then shares with us how they have been keeping the team working together and reaching out to the board. Tune into this episode to learn more about the amazing work over at MOSAIC and gain wisdom on treading the rough waters brought on by the pandemic.
Listen to the podcast here:
MOSAIC With Olga Stachova
Our guest on the show is Olga Stachova. She is the CEO of MOSAIC based here in the Lower Mainland in British Columbia. She’s going to talk to us about how her organization has been coping with the pandemic and what they’re doing, looking forward. Welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me.
Many of our audience are probably familiar with the work of MOSAIC or some part of the work that you do in the community. For those that aren’t, maybe you could tell us about MOSAIC, what MOSAIC is and what you’ve been doing to manage the pandemic over the last couple of months?
MOSAIC is one of Canada’s largest settlement organizations supporting newcomers in a journey as they’re building life in our country. We serve newcomers of all ages, all genders, all ethnic backgrounds and all immigration streams, no matter under which immigration category they come. Our role is to support them in figuring out how to navigate, like in Canada, how to establish successful and happy lives in Canada. Through our many programs that we offer, we do in-person through our 50 locations across Lower Mainland but also online. Anything from navigating local resources, figuring out healthcare education for your children, taxes, language training through employment supports and training, leadership development. Any other things that come as they are building their life here in Canada.
That’s an important role that you play in the lives of newcomers to Canada. How has that shifted as we’ve been dealing with this COVID-19 pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the weaknesses and inequities in our society. It’s good spotlight on the people who are marginalized, underserved and might have pre-existing vulnerabilities. It makes it harder for them to navigate the pandemic and whether the economic fallout of the pandemic. We’ve seen that newcomers are the ones who were hit particularly hard for a number of reasons. Imagine moving to this country without your social and professional networks. Trying to navigate life and work in a new language that you might not be fully efficient in. It’s difficult at the best of times but throw on top of it at pandemic that came back in March 2020, especially the rapidly evolving situation every day. We had new information, new measures were put in place, new programs, new subsidies were being announced.
It was hard for newcomers to follow and to navigate the exchanging information. We’ve seen a large impact even the ability to access timely information and local information. Many newcomers come with language barriers. They were knowledgeable about the COVID situation in their home countries, but not necessarily in what was happening in BC but in particular. We’ve seen that it was one of our focus for our settlement workers to make sure that our clients do have timely and correct information as the pandemic evolving. Moving forward, we also see that the COVID has changed how we function. A lot of our lives were online even before. As of March 2020, everything moved online. Access to timely information, access to benefits and the financial supports. All the learning, whether it’s our own learning or the learning of our children, has moved online.Even during times of economic growth, immigrants have higher unemployment rates than those born in Canada. Click To Tweet
We’ve seen that the access to technology and high-speed instrument that many of us take for granted is and was a major obstacle for newcomer communities. When you look at immigrants, refugees, migrant workers, isolated newcomer seniors, youth, low-income families are the least likely to have the resources and skills to access the government programs and benefits they often depend on, especially on a crisis like this. We see the impact on employment. I think since February 2020, BC has lost close to 400,000 jobs. The impact to newcomers has been harder than those born in Canada. The statistics in Canada talks about 23% of newcomers lost their jobs as opposed to 40% of those born in Canada. We look at the industry that have been in particular hit by COVID-19 is retail and hospitality. Those are industries where immigrants are more likely to work. Overall, a large compounding impact on the newcomer communities that we serve.
That economic impact is particularly acute. You mentioned that there are inequities that had been exposed through this pandemic time. Challenges that exist for newcomers before the pandemic or have been made worse by the pandemic. Are there new challenges or different challenges that newcomers are facing as a result of the pandemic?
It is linked to the pre-existing vulnerability. It’s like when you look at employment. There’s a saying that you’re last in and first out. Even during times of economy growth, immigrants have higher unemployment rates than those born in Canada. They’re likely to be in jobs that underutilized their education and their experience. Underemployment of newcomers is part of our system. With COVID-19, various newcomers will face more competition if they lost their job or scarce jobs opportunities and find it even more difficult to obtain on the job experience than a Canadian work experience that is valuable. You’re trying to establish yourself and find career commensurate to your education.
At MOSAIC, how are you approaching those conversations with newcomers and with the different levels of government that you interact with?
We have a wide range of programming where we support newcomers. There is about half of what we do is on employment programs and the other half is linked to languages and settlement supports. We work with both administrative on the federal and provincial level. We are working close with close to twenty different ministries. Those discussions are ongoing where we are able to inform from the ground of where we see the gaps and work with our funders going forward that, they have the right information when they’re designing programs and they understand where the needs are. For example, they’ve been part of the budget consultation for the BC government.
I think it’s now being concluded as this is looking at a budget next year. We had the opportunity to talk to the government about what we see in terms of impact on newcomers and their ability to enter the labor market, but also some of the digital inequities that we see among newcomers. This is not our voice, but there’s lot of voices around BC and that the government has heard it many times that we should not be treating digital connectivity as a privilege. It should be a right. All of us depend on being able to be connected to internet, having the devices, having the skills to navigate as so much of our life is online.
As you were talking about earlier, the number of new programs, the changes to rules related to the pandemic that were all coming out online and that was the easiest way for many people to access them. If people didn’t have a device or only had one to share among a family, it would have been difficult to keep up with all of that. I would imagine that a lot of those challenges come right through your office every day.
They do and it was interesting. We ourselves had to adjust quickly. Our programs are predominantly in-person programs. Yes, there is some training and programming that we do run virtually and online, but predominantly our services are in-person services. Whether it’s meeting with our clients and helping with navigating health, provincial or government supports, job search. Whether it’s home visitations and helping with parenting, language classes that were based on in-person learning, a lot of that had to move on online. That happened quite quickly. We could see that the sole focus on in the first few months was helping newcomers understand what’s going on, what are the new measures. Also, help navigate applications for subsidies. It’s hard when you have to do to remotely with someone who might only have a cell phone, and the forms, everything is in English. You can’t do that for them. Individuals have to submit all these forms and complete them by themselves. That was most of what our team was focusing on. Making sure that newcomers have the up-to-date record information, and then we help them navigate the supports that are in place.
Olga, that transition from a largely in-person and highly personalized training and education program to an all online version of those same programs must have taken a monumental effort on the part of your team. How did you keep everyone focused on the need to make that transition to do it quickly and in a way that stayed focused on the clients?
When you work in what we call Social Profit Sector, it’s special people who work in this sector. It’s individuals who look at the needs of the clients first before their own. The biggest focus was how do you make sure we can continue supporting our clients even when it’s not perfect, even if it’s not ideal, but if we do continue being in touch. People are incredibly creative. I must meet a lot of credit to our IT team who has done a tremendous amount of work. I don’t think they slept while we were transitioning the organization, making sure we can all access it. We had some systems in place before. We had remote access to files, but we need to ramp up, especially that there are collaborative tools and our ability to see clients by video and have the ability for everyone to connect with clients going from their homes.
There was a massive amount of effort by everyone involved. Even moving in-person classes online. It took probably three weeks for the team to change the classes and move towards online delivery. We didn’t start from zero. We didn’t start from scratch. In the past, we did invest into online model. We did have tools. When you look at our language, we did offer some classes in a blended version with half online, half in person. We did have that instructional development expertise in house. We could take those platforms and learning systems we already use and adapt them quickly to across all the 7 or 8 classes that we are running. We’re fortunate that we’ve seen this in the past. You follow the trends, you respond to the trends, you get that expertise. When the time comes, you are able to roll it out across the organization. That happens for everything that we’ve done that the online tools and applications and the systems that we had. Twenty percent of our offerings were a good basis for scaling up and deploying across the organization.
Going from 20% of your offerings to 100% of your offerings online, that’s very impressive. How long do you think it would have taken you without the crisis to move all of those programs online?
Probably a long time and sometimes maybe never. It’s interesting how for some programs we couldn’t see how this could work virtually, but it did. There were lots of surprises where we were surprised how the virtual delivery actually works. There was an interesting comment by some of our team members who felt that it helped improve the relationship and strengthen the relationship between our settlement workers and our clients. You don’t come to relationship from the position of power and an official position as the prior in-person. Where you see clients in your offices, in the official space in your office or you go to home visitation, you visit clients in their homes. Some of them you talk from your living room or from your dining room, with all the knickknacks that you have at the background. It makes them more human somehow. It almost feels like you’re inviting that clients into your own home. It puts you on an equal footing. Our team has commented that it did build more trust and strengthen the relationships. There’s lot of surprising silver lining that came out of this. The same with the technology. We’ve planned a lot of those transitions. We’ve put funding in our budget, but what we planned to do over a year and a half, we did in the first three months.
You can check that box off the work plan, not in the way you’d want to do it. I’m curious about what you said there about building that trust quickly through using video calls. Much of the work that MOSAIC does and does so well is about that feeling of human connection and belonging. Bringing together people who are new to Canada and helping smooth that transition. I imagine there are a lot of great stories that happen on every day about how that connection and belonging makes a difference in the lives of your clients. As the leader, how have you tried to keep that focus on connection and belonging, when you’re not able to be in the same room as the people that you’re serving?It's nice to be reminded on a regular basis that the work you are doing has an impact on people's lives. Click To Tweet
We’ve invested in tools that connect us as a team. Even before COVID, we are a distributed organization. Our staff is located at 50 different offices. We are not all together in one space. Even before that, we identified it as a priority to be able to have those times when we do come together, when we can connect across offices. We have those collaborative tools that allow us to do that. We’ve ramped up those and build on those. I want you to make sure that I hear from the team. I have regular meetings with the executive team and with the directors, but what I’ve instituted early on is weekly check-ins with the team and with the frontline staff. Have an informal coffee chat every week. I get to meet a small group of frontline staff every week and hear those stories and talk to them and be able to ask the questions they might have.
Our staff also have lots of questions, a lot of uncertainty about, what is going to happen, how are we going to be able to cope with these changes? It’s not only how changes in how we deliver services. A lot of the stress and changing happening in our personal lives. Many of us had to do also homeschool at home while working. How are we even going to navigate that? Recognizing and talking to people, recognizing this is unusual circumstances. We do recognize there is additional stresses put on you. We need to be mindful that yes, your main role is to serve your clients, but our job and my job is also making sure that our staff are taken care of and we pay attention to their own wellbeing.
It’s wonderful that you do make that effort to have those conversations with your team on the front lines. I’m sure it means a lot to them to have the CEO asking them how they’re doing and what they need. As a leader, what do you take away from those conversations with the frontline pandemic or no, being able to stay connected to the work that’s happening on a daily basis?
It’s incredibly valuable. This is one of the things that we may have started as a result of the pandemic. We will definitely continue going forward. As you grow your career and the higher you get into a career, you’ll the further you are away from the actual services are deliberate from the client’s stories. It’s valuable for me to hear those stories, to understand, have those examples and understand what we are doing on the ground. Also, what is the team proud of and excited about? What are their own challenges? There may be other than the challenges that are articulated at the management level. It’s important to hear on the ground. I find refreshing and motivating to hear the stories of our clients, because sometimes when you’re at the end, the C level, the things you deal with are complicated things. The problem either way. Those are difficult decisions that someone will be unhappy at the end of that. It’s nice to be reminded on a regular basis that the work you are doing has an impact and is bettering people’s lives. That’s what’s driving all of us to do our work. I find it incredibly rewarding.
Someone said to me when I got my first CEO position that if the decision was easy or if it was all good news and everyone was going to be happy, someone else would’ve made it long before it came to your office.
The problems that you are dealing with other problems that do not have a good and ideal solution. You are constantly risk managing. It’s important to you to be reminded and have firsthand knowledge of what’s happening in that programs.
When you mentioned risk management there, I’m going to pivot to your board. That’s an important part of your organization and any organization. As things were changing quickly in March and in April 2020, and as they continue to change quickly now, how have you stayed connected with your board? How do you let them know how the pandemic is impacting the organization and the changes that you’re making in order to adjust and pivot to the needs of your clients?
We had a board meeting in mid-March 2020, where we approved our budget for 2021 and a week later, everything changed. Our board is the strategy and policy board. They do not get involved in management, but at the same time that you have to show responsibility for the organization and they do care. I made a point of providing regular updates. Every few weeks, I would send an email update so they understand how we are responding, what we are doing. I have two in-person sessions when I asked them to organize an information session. One was when we were able to assess the financial impact on the organization and change some of the forecast and predictions.
Also, inform the board how we are mitigating those changes. We had another session as we are now looking at reopening. We spent three months moving everything online and now we’re looking how we reopen and the same thing happened. There are so many guidelines. There’s so much advice you want to pull it together and make a plan for your organization. Give the board the confidence that we have a plan, we know what we are doing, and we can deliver. It’s important to keep the board updated. They’ve been supportive, asking whatever they can do and we would call on their advice, but making sure that we have plans and letting us do our work.
In a non-pandemic time, how do you use your board as a place of advice? How do you seek advice from your board on issues that are particularly difficult or pivotal for the organization?
That would happen, not necessarily through the board meetings themselves, because they are quite structured. There’s a lot of agenda to cover. We have a number of working subcommittees. I do quite a bit through that, but then individually. Also, hiring and interviewing new board members. That’s what I usually tell the board candidates. That’s what I see the most value when I can call on board members individually and talk through an issue with them. They each have different perspective and they each have different expertise. It’s great to have that when I can reach out and talk through a topic with someone. That informal relationship is important.
That’s is a characteristic I’ve found on CEOs that are effective in their roles and have great relationships with their boards. Most of their conversations with their board members and board leadership are done in a more informal environment than in the formality of a meeting. That’s something that new CEOs struggled to learn at least initially. When they find their feet, they realize that advice that can happen through a phone call at the end of the day is a lot more effective than a motion put on the floor at a board meeting the following morning.
When you look at the board meetings, there’s much that needs to be covered. There are many emotions and approvals. Sometimes it feels like there isn’t that much time for the real discussion. It’s important that you have a lot of those discussions maybe ahead or outside of the board meetings. That advice, especially when we hire and we look for new board members, we look at a wide range of expertise and experience. Recognizing that as a leader myself, we all have blind spots. There are things that I might not have thought through. Getting that different perspective is valuable to my decision making.
You mentioned you’re going through the process of unpacking the reopening of the organization. As you look ahead, what is it you’re most looking forward to as the doors to MOSAIC open up again to the community?As leaders, recognizing that you have blind spots is valuable to decision making. Click To Tweet
First of all, we are most looking forward to being able to support those clients who struggled and who we could not support virtually. There was only those who might not have the digital devices, who might not have benefited from any of the work. Those are the first ones that we are opening. We are following the guidance of the health authorities. We are limiting the number of people we have in our sites. Priority is given to individuals who do not have the technological tools and the digital skills and the language skills to access, support, and advice. Those are the clients we will be serving first. The team is thrilled to be able to do that. Given the people who work in our sector, their first priority and worry is the wellbeing of their clients.
On top of the stress of dealing with your own issues and taking care of your children or your parents and trying to balance it with work, you have the stress of seeing that you are trying but you cannot help that particular client. That will be huge and our team is excited about that. The other thing that the team is excited is being able to be in the office and see other people. Technology is great. Zoom is effective, but who wants to be in front of it the whole day? It is exhausting. It’s those side conversations that are valuable when you touch base with people to see how they are doing, this is what the team is looking forward to.
My final question for you, and I’ve been asking everyone who’s been on the show the last couple of months, what have you been doing to support and look after yourself as you’ve been going through this pandemic?
The silver lining for working from home is that you don’t spend two hours in commute every day. I decided to spend the time biking or walking and doing what I couldn’t find time for it before. Going back, I need to remind myself to make sure that it’s important to take care of myself. Also, finding a routine that worked for me because I’m home homeschooling my daughter and at the same time working. Sometimes it’s hard to find the balance. The things that make you happy that you don’t feel guilty about working and spending time with your daughter and then the other way around. There are some tools that I have that will be valuable even when we go back.
Thank you very much for sharing that and your perspective with all of the things that have been happening during the pandemic and the great work that MOSAIC has done to continue to serve clients, throughout this time. Thank you for being a guest.
Thank you for having me.
About Olga Stachova
Olga Stachova is the CEO of MOSAIC. She joined MOSAIC after a long career as Chief Operating Officer at Mitacs, a national non-profit organization delivering research and training programs to graduate and postgraduate students in Canada through partnerships with the private sector and the federal and provincial governments. Olga brings 20 years of experience managing a fast growing, distributing, non-profit organization, as well as operational expertise in program design, delivery, and evaluation, and a proven track record of building strategic partnerships among diverse stakeholder groups.
Olga has a Master’s Degree in English and Philosophy from the University of Constantine the Philosopher in Nitra, Slovakia. Prior to immigrating to Canada, she was Senior Project Manager at Management Partners, the leading HR consulting company in the Slovak market. She was highly successful in her role of recruiting personnel for international organizations opening subsidiaries in Slovakia.
Olga is the recipient of the 2009 Business in Vancouver Top Forty Under 40 Award, as well as the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.