Partner Q&A: Sally Zhao, the President and Chief Executive Officer at the Immigrant Education Society

September 20, 2023 | Our blog, Partners

One by one, we’re featuring Q&As with all of our partners so you can get to know them—and their work—a bit better.

This September, find out the challenges, rewards, and motivators for Sally Zhao, the President and Chief Executive Officer at the Immigrant Education Society (TIES).

Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Question: Describe your organization’s mandate.

Answer: At the Immigrant Education Society (TIES), our vision is to build toward an inclusive and pluralistic society for all.

We aim to do this by providing innovative language education, customized employment training and placement, and integration services to newcomers and Canadians based on best practices.

Our core values include togetherness, inclusion, empowerment, and service—all areas that we believe help us work toward our overarching vision of building an inclusive community.

Q: What led to where you are now professionally?

A: I completed my Ph.D. and MA degrees from Cardiff University, as well as my MEd degree from Exeter University, before immigrating to Canada in October of 2005 to join my family.

Shortly after moving to Canada, I started volunteering as an English as a Second Language (ESL) tutor at TIES with the drop-in ESL program while I decided which direction I wanted to go with my career.

Very quickly, though, I realized how much I loved the work that TIES was doing for the newcomer community, and just decided to never leave. Since 2005, I have held roles within the society such as Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) instructor, Enhanced Language Training (ELT) instructor, and LINC Program Manager.

Then in June 2014, I was appointed the Executive Director designate position, covering the Society’s daily operations when our founder and Executive Director was sick. Ultimately, in November 2014, I became the Executive Director, a title that was later changed to President and Chief Executive Officer. I have been in the position ever since.

I think my educational background, combined knowledge and experience, and passion for supporting my fellow newcomers in their journey to call Canada their home have all led me to where I am now professionally.

Q: What does a usual workday look like for you?

A: Every day is different and similar when you lead an organization. There are always things to celebrate, challenges to tackle, and stressors to manage. Some staff share their tears with you, others share their laughter, and ultimately, we are all working towards the collective goal of supporting our newcomer community.

I work with multiple collaborators daily, and this is quite common within the not-for-profit sector. Being able to multi-task and properly prioritize is vital for success.

Internally, it is important to take the time to acknowledge and appreciate our staff’s achievements, while also taking time to listen to challenges and concerns so that I can provide the best support possible.

Externally, a large portion of my role is effectively communicating with partners, funders, politicians, and community members in order to build strong and trusting relationships, and maintain continued support to help grow TIES in all capacities.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part of your work?

A: Working in the not-for-profit sector comes with many stresses and challenges, but at the end of the day, being able to do my part for both our clients and our staff is the most rewarding aspect above all else.

There are many clients who come to us at TIES with little to no education, and being able to watch and contribute to their journey here in Canada is so fulfilling. You get to witness firsthand the difference organizations like TIES, and so many others within the not-for-profit sector, can make.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of meeting so many hardworking individuals who have immigrated to Canada to try and build a better life for themselves and their families, and knowing that my work gets to positively contribute to their goals is very gratifying.

Additionally, having the opportunity to work beside so many kind and selfless individuals on our staff here at TIES makes my job so much better. They encourage me to show up as the best version of myself every single day to help contribute to our dedicated team.

Q: What’s the most challenging part?

A: It is no secret that non-profit organizations are primarily dependent on external funding. We are always so grateful for the funding opportunities we receive and the confidence our funders have in us; however, the interim often lacks stability, which contributes largely to stress at TIES.

We are an organization composed of so many devoted and creative individuals who are constantly trying to improve our programs and grow our reach to the community, but neither of these things can be done without sufficient and stable funding.

Since our organization was founded in 1988, we have grown from a small, volunteer-led initiative to a staff of over 160 people who have been able to assist more than 300,000 newcomers and financially disadvantaged individuals. None of this would have been possible without continued and increased funding.

Our hopes are to continue to grow so that we are better able to serve more newcomers—therefore, ensuring we acquire funding is our largest challenge to making this goal a reality.

Q: What motivates you?

A: Knowing the work we do at TIES has the ability to positively impact our clients daily is wildly motivating. Little wins can go such a long way in the lives of those we serve, and knowing none of our work and effort goes unappreciated is truly humbling.

As well, being able to work alongside others in the newcomer sector who are just as enthusiastic and excited about the impact we are able to make is so motivating, as it reminds us why we entered this field in the first place.

Q: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned so far?

A: I have been with TIES since November 2005, and in these almost 18 years I have been in a myriad of positions, all of which have taught me that above all else, being adaptable and receptive to change is one of the most valuable skills you can have.

Change can refer to something as big as a pandemic forcing us to work and teach from home for over two years, or as small as a meeting time being pushed by 30 minutes. All change can be deeply impactful, and being able to adapt to that change is what will make you a better team player.

On top of adaptability, being reputable for your quality of work within the non-profit sector is a surefire way to ensure both funding and strong relationships with others who have the same goals as yourself and your organization.

To be successful, making sure you nurture these relationships and maintain credibility will provide you with the opportunities to advance your vision and practices, which we work hard to maintain at TIES.

Finally, acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of every individual you encounter—whether they be a funder, partner, employee, volunteer, client, etc.—will serve you as a deeply valuable skill, and one you should carry with you in all aspects of your life, not just within your career.

It is important to acknowledge that diversity in perspectives serves as one of the most valuable assets for any organization.

Q: What are your hopes for your organization’s sector?

A: We are so fortunate to have so many amazing organizations within the non-profit immigration sector here in Calgary, all of which are committed to collaboration for the benefit of our clients.

Going forward, I hope for all of us to continue to work toward a more client-centered approach to our services, and one that encourages beneficial collaborations for all—and therefore, creates a very supportive environment.

The more successful we are as an overarching sector, the more likely we are all to receive more stable funding, which leads to sustainable services.

At the end of the day, we all share the same goal: to provide as much help to as many newcomers as possible. By collaborating and supporting one another, we are more likely to achieve this goal.

Additionally, I think it’s important to acknowledge that taking care of our staff at all levels within the sector by continually advocating for improved pay and benefits is always a priority.

There are so many hard-working, selfless individuals who dedicate their careers to bettering the non-profit immigrant sector, and appreciating them is a practice that should never be forgotten.

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