Serena Iyoha is a student at the University of Ottawa. Through Plan International Canada's Girls Belong Here virtual seat share experience, she had the opportunity to meet with RBC executives where she gained insights from company leaders and shared her voice and perspective about the future.

Girls Belong Here (GBH) is a landmark program developed by Plan International Canada that is making space for girls to lead, learn and thrive in Canada and around the world. The program has matched nearly 150 young women with companies and organizations that are committed to empowering the girls of today so they can become the leaders of tomorrow.

“It’s imperative that we provide meaningful platforms and opportunities for young women,” says Catherine Chalmers, Vice President, Philanthropy of Plan International Canada. “The Girls Belong Here program enables them to build soft skills, gain networking opportunities and exercise their leadership potential.” She also adds that it’s an experience that allows them to rub shoulders with all kinds of executives. “Ones that look like them, and ones that don’t necessarily look like them,” she says. “Providing this avenue with organizations that are committed to advancing women in the workforce cements the idea that ‘you belong here, and we want you here’.”

Since 2016, GBH has pioneered girls’ leadership in Canada by providing a one-of-a-kind opportunity for girls to step into influential positions and lead. And, at a time when pandemic job losses threaten to leave women behind, empowering young women becomes an even more important endeavour.

Helena Gottschling and Serena Iyoha in an online meeting

“Girls Belong Here is a great opportunity for corporate leaders to gain perspective from future leaders, and I truly appreciated speaking with Serena to hear about her views and aspirations. By making space for girls and young women to learn, lead and thrive today, we can empower the next generation to break barriers, challenge stereotypes and contribute to our global economy and society in exciting ways,” said Helena Gottschling, Chief HR Officer, RBC and a board member of Plan International Canada.

Until you see it, you don’t know what’s possible

Much more than a job shadow, Girls Belong Here aims to give young women a leadership position. “ The intention is for the participants to be an important voice at leadership tables, or for them to lead board meetings, or to evaluate materials and provide insight., all this while, learning valuable leadership skills. Learning happens at both ends – the executive and youth.” explains Chalmers. And, by arranging seat shares and meetings with leaders, especially women leaders, the program participants can see themselves in positions of influence and leadership.

The shift to a virtual format has in fact allowed for more dialogue and exposure for the young women of the program, who can meet with various leaders across multiple days, weeks and months. “It has become an experiential opportunity where there is give and take, feedback and acknowledgement given about the value brought to the table, and a forum to speak, address, lead and make decisions,” says Chalmers.

Serena Iyoha meets with RBC executives

Serena Iyoha is a Business Technology Management student at the University of Ottawa and part of the 2021 Girls Belong Here cohort. She applied for the program after seeing a posting about it on TikTok. Serena was matched with RBC, and after some training and coaching with Plan International Canada and the other 41 young women in her cohort, she met with senior business and technology leaders.

Neil McLaughlin and Serena Iyoha in an online meeting

“Creating opportunities for young people to develop into the leaders of tomorrow is an ongoing commitment at RBC,” says Neil McLaughlin, Group Head, Personal & Commercial Banking. “Girls Belong Here helps bring that commitment to life. The seat share program gives young women access to business leaders, along with a view into their operations and decision-making. It also encourages them to flex their own leadership capabilities and share their perspectives – as we saw with Serena.”

In a recent conversation, Serena shares her leadership experience with the company.

Q: How did you feel when you learned you were paired up with RBC?

Iyoha: I thought getting paired with RBC was really interesting. I knew that Canadian banks were making the transition to digital delivery, so I knew there was something to be learned. When I did more research, I discovered they have a big, bold innovation story, which was very exciting to me.

Q: You met with people from both the business and technology sides of the bank. What struck you from your interactions with them?

Iyoha: What really surprised me was that everybody had a very integrative view of both fields. So, if they were on the technology side, they understood the business side just as well – and vice versa. A lot of what RBC is doing to move forward – whether it be with their communities or their banking services or new innovations –comes from this integrative pathway. It made me feel very confident in what I was studying, as it reaffirmed that these two fields are interconnected and better together.

Q: What was your biggest learning from your time spent with RBC?

Iyoha: I expected to learn about the ins and outs of Business and Technology. But the sheer amount of advice I received about career development… I don’t think I could have got from anywhere else. What perhaps struck me the most was how everybody embodied the values at RBC – it’s one thing to read about the core values, but for everyone to act accordingly at a senior level showed me how they really believe in the work they’re doing, and that the rest of the organization can only follow suit. I’m really glad I witnessed that.

Q: What do you think they learned from you?

Iyoha: I think what they learned from my side, and I speak for a lot of my peers, is that young people have so many ideas and so much ambition. Although I got selected, there are a lot of other young people like me. I think I might have reaffirmed their hope for the future generation, and the innovation that’s yet to come. So hopefully, they learned that the next generation of leaders is coming in running.

Q: You met with several women leaders at RBC. As someone starting out in your career journey, what kind of impact does that have on you, seeing women in these leadership positions?

Iyoha: These meetings motivated me to keep going and continue doing what I’m doing. We talked about more than just work, but also how they found their place within the workplace, and balance what they have happening outside of work. For me to see them have this balance, still go far in their career and take many risks was inspiring. They never let the fact that they are women stop them – if anything it has empowered them to move forward and help other women. My hope is that I can draw from the resilience and courage these women have.

Q: There is still a gap when it comes to women in technology leadership positions. What are your thoughts on how that gap can be closed?

Iyoha: I feel the gap is beyond just the workforce, it stems from education. There’s a gap in what people are studying, which leaves a gap in the type of people available to work. I personally believe that the best way to close this gap is to invest in supporting and providing growth opportunities for marginalized groups.

I believe that closing the gap not only helps bring marginalized groups forward, but also helps the bank in the end, because you have a new class of talented, innovative people who have a lot of knowledge to share. Diversity of thought makes for a richer experience – the more diverse a team is, the more innovation it can lead to, because you have so many different ideas and points of view. I think adding more women and more BIPOC people can only help an organization.

Q: Would you recommend Girls Belong Here to other young women?

Absolutely! Girls Belong Here is truly a one of a kind program. It’s so much more than just learning about a company. You learn from so many different people about work and life lessons. I think it’s an excellent career and personal growth opportunity and I hope that other young women experience something similar in their career as it is the kind of experience that pushes you forward in every aspect of life.

Applications for Girls Belong Here opens every spring for girls and young women aged 14 to 24 on The panel of Plan International Canada staff who evaluate the applicants look at not only exceptional experiences, but youth who demonstrate a clear passion for gender equality and inclusion, along with a motivation and desire to create change.

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.