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Real talk

Tina Varughese (BA’90, BComm’93) has made a career making people comfortable getting uncomfortable

If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself at a conference when Tina Varughese (BA’90, BComm’93) is on stage, you will quickly discover why the sought-after presenter was named one of Canada’s 10 Notable Speakers by Ignite magazine. 

By mixing personal stories and humour, her larger-than-life personality draws in a crowd. She cleverly tackles hot-button issues, like diversity and inclusion, with a fierce confidence. 

“The humour piece came naturally for me; it’s my secret sauce,” she says with a laugh.

But being a public speaker is not all fun and games. Varughese notes that being an entrepreneur, especially during a pandemic, has its challenges. Being an inclusion and diversity public speaker in today’s racially complex climate also comes with difficulties.

Nevertheless, dealing with challenges is not new for Varughese and she isn’t afraid to broach the tough topics.

“I don’t take an approach where I talk about theory or concepts. I really encourage people to get very comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she says.

Varughese’s parents immigrated to Canada from India more than 60 years ago. The couple ended up in Saskatoon, which is where Varughese grew up and eventually became a student and graduate of the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

“Being someone who speaks throughout Canada, the minute people find out I am from Saskatchewan, there is a kinship,” she says.

After university, she moved west to Alberta, where she worked in sales and several levels of government. During this time, she worked extensively with the immigrant community, which serves as the backbone to her familiarity with inclusion and diversity.

“It was definitely the first time that I really recognized and realized how privileged I was to be born Canadian. You don’t really appreciate our country until you meet with people who have chosen to live here,” she says.

It was an experience at work that first ignited her love of public speaking. She was asked to conduct a training session for her colleagues and realized she would rather be at the front of the room than sitting in the audience. From there, she started her own company, tWorks, with the hope of bringing her knowledge about multiculturalism, inclusion and diversity to different corporations and organizations.

“I recognized there was a huge gap. When we’re looking at Canada, we’re looking at a 20 per cent foreign-born population and I realized there was some challenges and opportunity that organizations can benefit from if they understood more about the cultural difference that people could bring to the table,” she says.

Varughese’s stage presence and charisma chartered her through the early years of her career as a public speaker and eventually her brand started to flourish.

Speaking on difficult issues can be challenging, especially today when Black Lives Matter and systematic racism are topics on many people’s minds. Being a person of colour, Varughese notes it is a humbling experience to be able to address such important matters at such a pinnacle point in history.

“It is really important for me to use my platform. And, when you’re in a position of influence, you have the opportunity to inspire and impact others to think and act with intention.

“I will admit it was sometimes emotionally exhausting, especially during a pandemic,” she says.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) announced COVID-19 was a worldwide pandemic, Varughese was finishing a speaking engagement in Fredericton, N.B., where she received a standing ovation that she now recalls as a bittersweet moment.

“When I came home, I had a slew of postponements and cancellations in my inbox,” she recalls.

Varughese focuses on presenting in front of large audiences, so having the world forcibly unable to meet together in large groups was very daunting at first. However, her self-proclaimed pity party did not last long. She almost immediately got a call from a client asking if she was interested in presenting to her team virtually. Varughese jumped at the opportunity.

“I was forced to build a home studio in my basement. I will admit I look like a YouTuber down there,” she says with a laugh.

Varughese says she not only pivoted, but adapted to the environment. No longer could she bring her audience in with her physical presence, but she found ways to engage them through virtual interactivity such as polls and questions.

Slowly, but surely, the phone was still ringing with inquiries and speaking opportunities. Varughese says it’s a testament to those groups who still found the benefit in investing in their employees, even in a pandemic.

One of those calls Varughese received during the COVID-19 pandemic was from Hockey Canada, reaching out to inquire about inclusion training for their athletes, staff and coaches. 

“(Hockey) has a bit of a culture that they really wanted to address. They wanted to be able to use their own platform to be able to address some of the discrimination and racism that may occur on and off the rink,” says Varughese.

The whole experience was new for her. Not only would it all be delivered virtually, but the athlete demographic was only 16- to 20-years-old, much younger than Varughese’s typical audience.

Nonetheless, she came equipped with her signature keynote “Unconscious bias: Making a first impression in 7 seconds or less” and delivered the four-week training course mid-July with the same enthusiasm that she would live.

“It’s been very well received from everyone involved,” said Hockey Canada senior vice-president of national teams Scott Salmond in an interview with TSN’s Glenn Schiller.

In the interview, Salmond admitted that inquiring about the training was going into the unknown, but it is important to address the systematic racism that is apparent in hockey culture.

“(We want to) make hockey a safe place for everyone who wants to participate,” he said in the interview.

Varughese has nothing but positives to say about the experience, noting the athletes involved were open, vulnerable and willing to learn.

“I was so inspired by these young athletes because they were so vulnerable and they were very open. Most importantly, they were willing to use their own platforms to influence and inspire change in a positive way,” she says.

Varughese’s career has taken her many places. She has travelled internationally to speak collectively to thousands of people. While the future is unknown for many people dealing with COVID-19 restrictions, it’s clear to her that she will keep spreading her knowledge as long as she can, however she can.

In the meantime, she looks forward to spending time with her family. When asked what she is most proud of, she notes that being a mother while pursuing her dreams has been the most rewarding experience in her life.

“I am most proud of the fact that I am able to be working on my own terms so that I’m the mother that I wanted to be,” she says.

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