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Creating solutions and building success with Helen Harakas, Executive Director of Brands For Canada

Although her path may not be a traditional one, it has provided the skills and knowledge needed to grow one of Canada’s top charities, Brands For Canada (BFC). With her focus on people and understanding of business, Helen shares her story towards creating purpose, becoming part of the solution and building success!

Prior to getting involved with BFC, Helen’s only true business background was that passed down from her father’s entrepreneurial spirit. Since her father ran multiple businesses from auto garages to real-estate holdings, Helen always imagined herself in a business setting, only with a stronger focus on community. This mindset encouraged her to complete an undergraduate degree in Psychology, a Master’s in Education and recently, an Executive Leadership Program at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Creating Purpose

Upon her academic completion, Helen began working with young women who were living on the streets, running a high school program at the Massy Centre for Women in East York in partnership with the Board of Education. Here, she witnessed young women with children, living in shelters, going to great lengths to meet the needs of their children. She realized a core issue was poverty. So, she started a program called The Basics. After receiving a large government grant, they renovated a 1,000 sq room into a large closet and filled it with used, donated clothing and housewares for the young women and their babies. One of the largest donors was an organization called Windfall (known today as Brands For Canada). This organization provided the program with NEW items collected from brand-name companies that otherwise would have put such articles in landfills. Helen recounts the impact these new items had on the young mothers.

When the women would receive used items (although the donors meant well), I remember hearing, “See this is what someone thinks I should have, I know that I’m a piece of garbage because of what this person is giving me.”  Conversely, when Windfall’s new items would arrive, the women would be so excited and their attitude would change to, “Someone thinks I should have this?” And it was incredible to see the difference it made in these young women’s lives. Not just on a material level but an emotional level.

Becoming Part Of The Solution

One day, the Executive Director position opened at Windfall and Helen knew she wanted to be part of the solution.

I realized if we made their lives very comfortable and they had everything that they needed to survive, then they could move forward with their psychology. You can’t just do psychology with people living on the street, it just doesn’t make any sense, you have to look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You can’t move forward with your life if you don’t know where you are going to sleep each night.

Building Success

1. Combine hard work with dedication.

Through Helen’s 15 years of leadership and dedication, Brands For Canada (formally known as Windfall) has grown to become one of Canada’s top charities processing a value of over $42 million worth of clothing, personal care items and small household goods to the community. Helen explains,

We keep 1000s of tons of clothing out of landfill. Textiles are the number two polluter of our earth after the oil industry; damaging the ozone layer and our water.

2. Partner up.

Brands For Canada partners with over 200 corporations who provide new items on a regular basis, most of which would have otherwise ended up in landfills. Helen shares

We work with the school boards and the refugee programs, among other wonderful organizations, to provide items for those in need.

3. Create a strong company culture.

With a team of 12 and the support from many volunteers and Corporate groups, Brands For Canada also provides job training and clothing through their Suitable Impressions and EDGE programs. Helen points out that an important aspect of this is the incredible work culture.

It was Peter Drucker who said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” – when you have a good culture you can get anything accomplished. At BFC, everyone is here for the right reason, to help those in need. Our clients feel welcome. They often tell us when they come to our programs that this is the first time where they feel treated like real people.

4. Embrace the highs and the lows.

None of this would be possible without the support from government grants, donations, and family foundations. This, in itself, is what every Executive Director prays for. Although today Brands For Canada is going strong, Helen recalls when this was not always the case,

The first seven years could be described as difficult. It was very hard financially, I didn’t have enough people. I was not sleeping well and working 80 hours a week. If I have any advice to those starting off in a management position I would say, do not accept low-performance standards from your people. Don’t be everybody’s mother, trying to help them and protect them your personal expense. It is not good for them or for you, and especially not good for the organization.

5. Stick to your passion.

Even through hard times, Helen always stayed true to her passion for helping others. For Helen, like many others who make a daily impact through their work, the benefit is not just the paycheque but the feeling of going home each night and knowing that a difference was made that day.

What got me to where I am today is my drive and passion, and it comes from when you are in this industry you meet the most beautiful people, whether they are donors, volunteers or clients. Everybody is in such a positive mindset, especially considering the fact that we are dealing with some very serious issues here, some of our clients have escaped abuse, homelessness, sexual abuse, and are dealing with the most severe issues that exist with humanity. Yet at the same time, we all manage to stay positive, engaged and fulfilled by what we do. In the end, that’s what matters!

Helen Harakas with volunteers and Syrian refugee family providing household items and clothing for their new home in Canada.

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Cristine Sousa

Cristine Sousa

Cristine Sousa holds her Master's of International Management with a major in Social Enterprises through the CEMS Global Alliance in Management Education (Ivey School of Management Western University, Nova SBE Portugal, and Erasmus University Rotterdam). She currently leads Bmeaningful's Marketing and Communications and enjoys engaging with the social impact community! When she's not focusing on Bmeaningful, Cristine is teaching dance and barre classes, volunteering her expertise as the President of New Generation Consulting (a Probono global consulting group), learning about new cultures while travelling the world, or being creative on the keys playing the piano! Feel free to connect with her.

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