“As a young female entrepreneur with a bicultural background, I think that it’s incredibly important for people of different ages, backgrounds, and experiences to be represented, especially in a growing, diverse city such as Hamilton.”
Sonia Kumar, Founder/Owner of Body Brave
Sonia Kumar is the founder and owner of Body Brave, a Hamilton-based social enterprise aimed at providing support to young adults struggling with mental health issues, specifically body image issues and eating disorders. Moving to Hamilton from India at the age of 11, Sonia holds a Master’s in Business Economics and was recently appointed to the Board of Lynwood Charlton Centre.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Please tell us about your professional background.
In 2015 I graduated from the Masters in Business Economics program (MABE) at Wilfrid Laurier University. I also hold a Bachelor of Economics from McMaster University. I previously worked for the Burlington Economic Development Corporation as an Economic Analyst. I currently serve as a board member for Student Open Circles, a community organization dedicated to mentoring and empowering McMaster students from diverse backgrounds to develop leadership skills and engage with the community. I also serve as a board member for the Lynwood Charlton Centre, a publicly funded charitable organization in the City of Hamilton. I founded Body Brave in August of 2016 and it is now my full-time work.
“While I knew I wanted to be on a board in Hamilton, I didn’t have much knowledge of boards or how they worked. The educational aspect of the program really appealed to me, and so I decided to get involved.”
How were you introduced to DiverseCity onBoard, and why did you choose to get involved?
Yohana Otite, DiverseCity onBoard Hamilton Program Manager, reached out to me through LinkedIn and told me about DiverseCity onBoard. I also saw DiverseCity onBoard featured during an event in Hamilton and I thought it was a great opportunity. After I decided to go ahead with the program, Yohana guided me through the process. Part of the reason I chose to get involved was because of the fantastic guidance and encouragement I received. In addition, I simply did not see people of diverse backgrounds represented in many of the Hamilton boards. As a young female entrepreneur with a bicultural background, I think that it’s incredibly important for people of different ages, backgrounds, and experiences to be represented, especially in a growing, diverse city such as Hamilton. While I knew I wanted to be on a board in Hamilton, I didn’t have much knowledge of boards or how they worked. The educational aspect of the program really appealed to me, and so I decided to get involved.
You were recently appointed to the Lynwood Charlton Centre board. What is your interest in their board and the organization?
As the founder of Body Brave, mental health is my passion. I wanted to become part of a larger organization working in the mental health sector in Hamilton. Although I do not work in children’s mental health, I believe it is an extremely important and underfunded area of mental health care. I was most interested in Lynwood Charlton’s unique service offerings and their dedication to innovation in children’s mental health care. They provide a variety of evidence-informed mental health services and have an excellent reputation with medical professionals. I felt that I could learn a great deal from them and could offer some of my own unique insights. It was also important to me to choose an organization that actively makes a difference in the daily lives of Hamiltonians.
“Especially as an entrepreneur, my reputation, and my company’s reputation, are extremely important. Being on a board also constantly challenges me to think outside the box – to think outside my own company’s needs and day-to-day operations.”
What are some of the personal and professional benefits of being on a board that you have experienced?
Although I have not served on the Lynwood Charlton Board for long, I already feel more experienced. I am better able to articulate my ideas, to listen, to problem solve and to work in a team. I find I am able to work with people much more experienced than myself, yet still, contribute in a meaningful way which is an incredibly rewarding process. Being a board member also has benefits in terms of my own reputation, as people view it as a valuable addition to my resume. Especially as an entrepreneur, my reputation, and my company’s reputation, are extremely important. Being on a board also constantly challenges me to think outside the box – to think outside my own company’s needs and day-to-day operations. This encourages innovation and creative thinking. I am also able to bring my own networks to the boardroom table and benefit from the networks of others on the board.
What value do you feel you bring to a board? What impact do you have?
As an entrepreneur, I have extensive experience networking with a variety of groups in the community, building strong relationships and presenting complex ideas in a clear and engaging manner. I worked as an Economic Analyst at the Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) and I have valuable experience working with both public and private stakeholders.
I am bicultural, and moved to Hamilton from India at the age of 11. Although Hamilton was a welcoming city, it was not always easy navigating two such different cultures. In addition to this, I struggled with an eating disorder in my late teens and early twenties. I have now been recovered for over five years and offer services through my social enterprise, Body Brave, as help is often difficult to access to those struggling with these issues. I believe that both my background and my experiences with the mental health care system give me a unique and valuable perspective.
As a 30-year old living in East Hamilton, I also bring the perspective of a young Hamiltonian dedicated to the health and well-being of this City. I hope to bring not only my voice to a board but the voices of the many people that I work with in the community on a daily basis. I bring a fresh perspective and a dedication to innovation to a board.
What has your experience been with DiverseCity onBoard?
My experience has been excellent with DiverseCity onBoard. There has been a lot of personal attention, which I have really appreciated. Certain board postings relevant to me were brought to my personal attention via email. The governance training has been particularly valuable. It is easy to access and does not consume an unreasonable amount of time. It is clear, concise and well laid out. In addition, the services are affordable. For a busy, new professional, this is absolutely critical. The process for applying to a board is incredibly easy, saving me a lot of time and effort. In addition, DiverseCity onBoard has a good reputation, and organizations specifically look for candidates here. This gave me visibility and a platform I would not otherwise have had. DiverseCity onBoard has been my advocate throughout the process.
“The main challenge I faced when joining a board was my own self-doubt. I felt I may be too young and inexperienced to join a board with experienced, established and highly respected board members.”
Were there any challenges you faced in joining a board? What advice would you give to others who are looking to get involved in leadership and join a board?
The main challenge I faced when joining a board was my own self-doubt. I felt I may be too young and inexperienced to join a board with experienced, established and highly respected board members. Initially, I also felt hesitant to disclose that I worked with women with eating disorders because I myself had suffered from one. There is still a lot of stigma attached to these issues. However, these turned out to be my greatest strengths. My advice to anyone looking to get involved in leadership and join a board is to dive in! I encourage you to get involved, get engaged and don’t be afraid to express your ideas. Hamilton is redefining itself. Now is the time to add your voice to the mix! Network with other professionals in Hamilton as much as possible to get a sense for what your strengths and unique offerings are. In addition, learn as much as you can about the boards and the board process through DiverseCity. I have been asked questions about how boards function and I was extremely glad to have learned the right material through DiverseCity onBoard.
Is there anything you would like to add about your experience and position, or the importance of diversity in leadership that we haven’t asked?
While there are many board positions out there, it’s important to be selective. Your time is precious! Be honest and open about your background and experiences- they can turn out to be your greatest strengths. Take advantage of everything DiverseCity onBoard has to offer. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and keep engaging with them. They are an incredibly valuable resource and are your advocates.
Diversity is critical to good leadership in any organization. Different opinions and perspectives are important to have on a board. It is through respect, open-mindedness and the ability to listen that boards can most effectively direct policy as well as stay innovative.
This article is first published at the DiverseCity onBoard National Quarterly.