There are few individuals who have as deep an understanding of Calgary’s business community as Deborah Yedlin. Her background as an investment banker, coupled with an MBA brought a different and valuable perspective to her more than 20 years covering business as a columnist at the Calgary Herald and the Globe and Mail. And she was the trusted voice of business on CBC radio’s ‘The Eyeopener’ for 24 years. When Yedlin became the 14th Chancellor of the University of Calgary in June 2018, many were surprised she had decided to step back from her journalism career.
But education has been a focal point in her life. Born to immigrant parents who arrived in Edmonton after World War II, and were both educators, the importance of education was emphasized at every turn. Her father taught at the Edmonton Hebrew School and her mother was a history professor at the University of Alberta, from where she retired as professor emerita in 1996. “She broke the glass ceiling,” Yedlin says proudly. “And she set an incredible example for me.”
Inspired by her mother’s example and driven by her family’s emphasis on education, Yedlin studied economics and english at U of A and ended up on Wall Street for a two year stint at Goldman Sachs. After completing an MBA at Queen’s she moved to Calgary in the early 1990s, where she gained valuable insight and understanding of the energy sector as an investment banker.
“I look at my life and it’s like a big LEGO project [as the mother of three grown boys, she’s seen her share of LEGO],” she says. “Everything has been built on the previous layer. The experience in New York taught me about finance and capital markets, and I was able to use that – and leverage my ability to write – as a business columnist. I saw myself as a voice for business then – and now, at the Chamber, I am able to continue to do that, in a similar context. But I am not on deadline!”
A distinctive voice for Calgary business
The pieces, made from an unusual combination of building blocks, put Yedlin in a distinctive position as the leading voice for Calgary business: “I see so much opportunity to tell Calgary’s story proudly and confidently and share what we’re doing in ways that will benefit our businesses and help build our economy.”
Not that it will be an easy job: Yedlin assumed the role of president and CEO last July, during one of the most challenging times for the city, rife with pandemic and economic issues, and with federal and municipal elections on the horizon.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Yedlin admits, “to come into the role in the midst of the third wave of COVID and help our business community navigate every type of issue. We jumped in with a very strong position on vaccine certification and focused on making sure, ahead of both federal and municipal elections, we were engaging our members and candidates on key issues.”
Yedlin’s role at the Chamber requires broad knowledge of the issues facing Calgary’s business community – of which there are many – including the labour shortage, supply chain challenges, rising inflation, government supports, travel and trade barriers and pandemic-related constraints.
“There’s a level of uncertainty in terms of where the economy is headed,” she says. “Women are disproportionately affected and that’s why childcare must be more affordable and accessible for all. Affordable daycare for every family in this province will absolutely help our economic prospects.”
Barriers to inter-provincial trade are also on her radar, and she advocates for a fluid flow of labour across the country. “The New West Partnership between Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba has proved quite successful in aligning qualifications and apprenticeship programs,” she notes. “The common certification has encouraged the flow of labour. We need to use that as a platform and extend it across the country, in a deliberate attempt to reduce trade barriers.”
While she acknowledges inflation is a concern, she notes it’s a sign of a return to economic growth and that she doesn’t think it’s sustainable over the long-term. Meanwhile, many businesses have taken on a lot of debt to get through the pandemic, and Yedlin calls for a mechanism to help address that: “Whether it’s interest payment forgiveness, longer terms to pay back loans – we need to be looking at all the options to help businesses move forward.”
Yedlin describes how businesses have been managing. “To get through the pandemic, government supports have been critical for local businesses, which were already challenged pre-pandemic,” she says. “Alberta was on its back foot before COVID hit and we’re still dealing with the collapse in oil prices and empty office towers. Our unemployment rates are still higher than the national average. So we have a ways to go.”
Reasons for optimism
Through pandemic challenges and from what she has learned from businesses during her first months with the Chamber, she maintains there is reason for optimism.
“There are building blocks here that are starting to take shape into something, into many things, and not just from one sector or industry,” she explains. “There are foundations being laid all over the place, collaboration happening. One thing that hasn’t changed in Calgary is our ability to turn challenge into opportunity.”
Perhaps it’s all those years covering Calgary’s business community, through high highs and low lows, which gives her a unique confidence and perspective.
Front and centre for Yedlin is the question of how to position Alberta for the future: “What do we need to do? How do we change the channel in Calgary? We need to do some very deliberate work to revitalize and rejuvenate the economy. And we need to make sure we have the talent pool to support our economic diversification.”
Pathways to potential
As the energy sector has continued to be a target – whether from investment and endowment funds or non-governmental organizations, Yedlin is encouraged to see the next chapter unfolding as companies focus on innovation to decarbonize the energy sector.
“The fact six companies [Canadian Natural, Cenovus Energy, ConocoPhillips Canada, Imperial, MEG Energy and Suncor] came together to declare the Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero initiative in June is an incredible signal to those who are quick to criticize the sector,” she says. “This is an important to step to ensuring we have a viable industry for the long-term. There isn’t an industry on this planet that has seen competitors come together, so deliberately, to address a challenge like decarbonization.”
She describes another fundamental piece to fortifying Calgary’s economy and reputation as an energy producer. “We have such an opportunity to tell our story well across the country and around the world,” she says. “Unfortunately, there have been too many occasions for organizations and politicians to exploit a wedge where they’re not fully aware of the work that’s already been done to produce the world’s most sustainable barrel and scale that technology for the world to benefit from.”
“The development of Alberta’s renewable sector represents a generational opportunity for economic growth,” she continues. “The technologies, processes and innovation that will come out of the Pathways to Net Zero initiative will have a huge impact. Not just in the energy sector, but for the decarbonization of the global industrial complex as we know it today.”
“Alberta could be a global leader,” she adds. “We have a huge opportunity in front of us. We have capital flowing in, accelerators focused on this very issue, clean tech, climate tech. There’s research going on at the University of Calgary that is making huge strides.”
It’s part of the importance of the “and” conversation, vital to the revitalization of the city, energy and the environment. It’s not one or the other.
Calgary’s burgeoning tech sector is another area Yedlin is focused on. The November announcements that Amazon will open a cloud computing hub near Calgary and along with global business accelerator Plug and Play opening a headquarters in the city were very welcome. “It also signals to these companies’ clients and customers that this is the place to be,” Yedlin adds optimistically.
“One challenge remains, that we need to have the talent to support this growing sector of our economy,” she says. “It’s critical that our post-secondary institutions can provide the education needed for the world of today and tomorrow. But we also need to focus on the up-skilling and re-skilling opportunities for people who perhaps need to pivot but lack the underlying background to do that.”
She consistently returns to the fundamentals her parents instilled from an early age: “Investment in education is critical. You can take your education with you, wherever you go – and no one can take it away from you.”
With her four-year term as University of Calgary Chancellor ending in June, Yedlin is both proud of and amazed with what she has been able to witness in terms of the research activity at UCalgary. Whether it’s the fact UCalgary’s Kinesiology faculty is top in North America, the advancements in neuroscience taking place at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute or the stroke protocol developed at UCalgary and now used around the world to treat stroke, Yedlin remains committed to making sure everyone understands the contribution UCalgary makes to the city – and that the impact extends far beyond Calgary.
The Calgary advantage
After living here for 30 years, Yedlin is a proud advocate of her adopted home city – even though she is still an Oilers fan. “Calgary is a place where you can raise a family, as I have, build a meaningful career and make an impact in your community,” she says. “All you have to do is raise your hand and you’re welcome to come in and work in any capacity, especially in the community as a volunteer.”
She lauds the willingness of Calgarians to come together to solve problems, something not seen in many other big cities across the country. “It’s a very special place and that’s why I took the role at the Chamber. We have the right building blocks. I believe in Calgary. I believe in its potential.”