Imagine being homeless, without hope or opportunities. Then, imagine a pathway out of poverty and the chance to reimagine and reinvent yourself. Those are the opportunities that Up With Women’s Lia Grimanis is bringing to women and gender diverse individuals. Grimanis has knowledge of what being without hope is like – she was homeless too. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, there are more than 235,000 homeless Canadians in any given year*. 27.3% of the homeless population are women, and it is a particular problem with young women 20-34.
method, a company founded on the goal of business doing good recently launched method for Change, a platform dedicated to driving change by making it joyful, every day, and addictive, using the power of creativity to dissolve the barriers to doing good. method kicked off this initiative by partnering with Up With Women/Exponenti’elles – the national charity that Lia Grimanis is the CEO of.
“We are incredibly proud to partner with method on this campaign to tell our story and support the work we do at Up With Women to help those in need break the cycle of poverty and escape homelessness,” says Grimanis. “This partnership with method was a natural fit, because like us at Up with Women, they also believe that with a little creativity, confidence, and coaching, we can all make a positive change.”
Grimanis made a promise to herself to not only succeed, but she shows people who have experienced the impossible what is possible. Learn more about her story in our latest #WomenInspiringWomen.
You went through the cycle that many of your clients have been through experiencing homelessness and abuse. What was the spark that led you to get out of the shelter and achieve your dreams?
I was a homeless youth, and I am also autistic. In the context of violence, that’s especially traumatic because if you can’t tell when something is escalating, then it’s like you don’t see the train coming until you get hit by it. Everything seems normal and then suddenly, it’s run for your life.
I lived the typical story of a runaway. When everything was bad at home, I would run away and whenever things got bad there, I would run right back. This periodic homelessness started as couch surfing. The challenge is that people think that couch surfing isn’t real homelessness. It can be one of the most dangerous forms of homelessness because you run out of friends quickly and then you have to make new friends. If you’re a woman, you’re usually going to have offers from men and you can imagine what kind of challenges can happen there and I certainly was no exception.
I didn’t even know that shelters existed, which is why I kept couch surfing. It had gotten to a point where my uncle had threatened to kill me and I called an abuse hotline, and that’s when they got me into a shelter. At that point, I was so broken that I didn’t think I wanted to live. I was just asking myself because what’s the point of living if your life seems to be a constant struggle of victimization.
The day that I decided to live was the day I made a promise to myself on my shelter bed, that I was going to help other women rebuild their lives faster than I did. It took me almost 10 years just to get back to my starting line. You flee away from violence. For mothers, particularly, it’s incredibly traumatic when you’re trying to keep your kids safe, and you end up in a shelter hearing your kids crying and they don’t know why they can’t go home. But it’s those who flee for safety, who end up trapped in poverty. For me, it was really the result of that promise to myself that helped me to get out of the shelter, to build a dream and to rebuild my life and get to where I wanted to be.
Tell us about how you founded Up With Women and came up with the idea to coach women to success?
A big part of my promise to myself was sharing my story. I thought that that’s what I needed to do because when I was in the shelter, nobody ever came back and said, “Look where I am now, and I was here too”. The only proof we had of what our future was going to be was this constant struggle. Here’s the wonderful thing about being autistic. When you can’t read people’s faces, it doesn’t occur to you to be embarrassed or to think that something is ridiculous, so I would just go for these jobs because I wanted to make my life a story that could help somebody else believe that they could make it happen too.
I would go for technology jobs because as a high school dropout, I couldn’t become a doctor, lawyer or astrophysicist. The only thing I could do was sell and make money. All the jobs that I applied for required an MBA and there I was, with a grade ten math education going into interviews. I climbed the corporate ladder by sheer hard work. I must have worn somebody down to get my foot in the door.
At my last corporate job, I was regional Head of Financial Services for the Americas for a division of a billion-dollar technology company. I was at the top of my field, earning $270,000 a year and that’s when they finally decided to pay for a coach for me. It was life changing. I wondered why it took me 20 years to finally find out about coaches and that’s where I was struck by the inequity. I realized the people who need the services the most are the people who would never be able to afford it. That’s how Up With Women came about. I thought, what if we could convince coaches, to each commit to serving one woman for a year at no cost and the kind of impact that we could make and as a result Up With Women was born.
We had a woman who was in my old shelter who was a refugee from Uganda. I’d gone in to talk and share my story. She had her arms crossed and was just watching but not saying anything. Finally, she said to me, “I believe you had a good life; you were able to rebuild, but what about me? I’m a refugee. I’m black. I have all these things working against me.” She had finished her nursing degree while she was in the shelter. She graduated with honours and yet she couldn’t find work. She joined our program and within the year she was making $6,000 a month at her job at the hospital. She then worked with her coach to be able to grow her reputation so she could get the hours that she wanted and then she was motivated. She had always wanted to launch her own small financial services business and she did it.
It was amazing, to see from the start the kind of impact that this program could have in taking people out of deep poverty. This woman was making between zero and $1,000 a month, because all she could get was on call work. She couldn’t get into the shelter until she had more stability, yet here she was a year later, and she’d made such an enormous change.
We’ve seen so many stories like that and that is how it all started.
You used to go to the library to cobble together this mentor for yourself, but you didn’t have that real life mentor until you were already established.…
As autistics, we have imaginary friends because we can’t make real ones. I had this hybrid role model gluing together all the people I admired like Richard Branson, Bill Clinton and Oprah. I would go to my imaginary friend for advice, and that’s how I was able to find my way. That was a very important connection to coaching because coaching is not mentoring, there’s a big difference. Mentoring is all about the mentor’s story and then they share what you can do to get where you want to be.
Coaches are not supposed to give you any advice whatsoever. They’re supposed to help elicit your own life design. When you think about it from that perspective, you will discover that everything you need is inside of you. All the wisdom, all the genius is inside of you. Resourcefulness is far more important than having all the answers because if you’re resourceful you can build a network of advisors around you. It’s strange having this imaginary friend and being able to rely on them for advice and then going to a coach who is not going to give advice, but help you pull it out of yourself. It shows you where the magic comes from and that is from within.
Your mantra is success belongs to everybody. How do you get women who experience this loss of hope to see what is possible?
There’s a second mantra that I have that relates to all the stuff that I do like pulling trucks and planes and going for a Guinness World Record. If there wasn’t a purpose that you could find behind it, I’m not sure why anyone would do it. When you’re this little person pulling this gigantic plane and you think about that from the perspective of abuse, it really is a symbol that is transformative. When you are being abused, you feel like your attacker is this gigantic behemoth and you’re this tiny little thing. Somehow when I’ve pulled trucks and planes, and people see that I can move so much weight, it sends the message to survivors that we are stronger than we think. People need to start with recognizing what’s inside of them, recognizing their superpowers and be able to start accessing that genius.
The magic sauce of this program is that it connects to what method is doing as well, because method for change is all about creativity, competence and coaching so that we can make a positive change. Every single woman who comes into our program comes in never wanting to see another woman go through what they have been through. What we’ve been through though is an ember that we want to turn into a bonfire because as soon as the women start to see that they can be a role model for someone else, then suddenly, their goals become bigger. Your ego takes a backseat and it’s no longer about you, it’s about your mission. You know that any rejection or disappointment is no longer personal. In a way you become unstoppable. It is about starting to recognize the magic and genius inside of you.
How do you recruit coaches for Up With Women and what does that commitment look like?
This program is the only one of its kind and that means we’re the only ones who have coaching, deeply embedded and as a core part of the program. We are the only ones who offer it for a year in this sector. Because we have this as a centerpiece of our program, we’ve developed a real reputation among the coaches. Our network has grown exponentially and mostly by word of mouth because people stay with us year over year.
We’ve been able to build this community of people who are learning from each other but are also doing good. Our program has impact and is a true testament to the value of coaching. Even Harvard Business School has a case study on power and influence for social good. Their course is launching this month and they wanted to understand what it is that makes you able to bring together people who are giving these valuable services and staying committed to it. We also retain coaches because this program is so transformative, that the coaches learn to think outside of the box and as a result it helps to make them better leaders.
How can we be better allies to women, and in particular homeless women?
The biggest thing that we can do is just be helpful and care. We spend so much time just walking by. I want to avoid that image of the woman sitting on the street because when you think about women’s homelessness, it is not always visible. You can’t tell that a lot of women are homeless. They may be underemployed in the workplace. They could be struggling or couch surfing.
We also need to look each other in the eyes more. The challenge is that suffering is everywhere. What we learned from the pandemic is that suffering is ubiquitous, and we are all trying to overcome something. We have to open our ears and our hearts to each other and the more that we do that, the more we will be able to help every woman to succeed. Within that process, when you are open and are really listening, you will see that there are some vulnerable people that come out of the woodwork that you never would have known about otherwise and that’s how you help.
What does it mean to you when you see one of Up With Women’s clients enjoy that success that you talk about?
It’s everything. Thinking back to those days when everything seemed hopeless for me, I didn’t know that I would be able to build Up With Women. But this is an organization that we call an organism. It’s built by everybody involved. As a result, no individual can personally take credit for the success of another. Instead, it’s just this method that works. It makes a difference and creates positive changes for these women.
The last impact assessment that we did was with people who were at least 12 months into the lockdown. We were sure that our numbers would go down, but they didn’t. We work with women and gender diverse individuals, and we’ve continued working with them through the pandemic. They’ve been either unemployed or underemployed for years, and yet we saw within 6-12 months into the program a 221% annual income increase. Unemployment was cut almost in half; full-time employment increased 1500% and 57% terminated their social assistance. When we see those kinds of results happening with people who have been challenged for years, we know that this is a program and method that works.
Here is another example of a client that shows the significant kinds of changes that we can facilitate. This client is legally blind. She’s a mother of three and had been on social assistance for about two decades. Every time she would go to an interview, people couldn’t get past her blindness. She is well-educated, smart and highly compelling. When she joined the program, all she wanted to do was to be able to turn her volunteer work into paid work. She was a motivational speaker, and she was also an advocate for parents of special needs children.
She said everyone was willing to let her volunteer but weren’t willing to pay her. That really beats you down – after hearing a lot of nos, a new self- image comes into play that is destructive and you give up. She got into Up With Women and worked with her coach. By the end of the program, she was earning over $80,000 a year. She launched both of her volunteer projects as paid businesses. She also found the perfect job opportunity. It had everything that she does well, and she said normally she would not have applied because she saw the salary and thought nobody would give her that chance.
But she worked with a coach and persisted. She went through the most grueling interview process that she’s experienced and she was hired as a director of network relationships at a local charity. The transformations are incredible. It really is valuable to see how transformative such a simple methodology can be.
You do some outrageous things like truck pulling (in heels), shark diving and more. Part of the reason is so that you can show women what is possible. What is the most outrageous thing that you have done?
I hung out in a pit of live alligators and all but one of them was fully fed. The reason that they feed all the other alligators is to make them tired. They were behind me and then, there was this 550 pound, 12-foot alligator named Bob. Alligators move quickly. You have to sit behind their hind legs so that you can run if they turn on you. You have to trust that you’re not going to get eaten and that Bob’s going to be more interested in the piece of meat that they are dangling than you.
I’ve also driven a tank in East Germany. I was the first Canadian to complete the Fjord Rally which is a one-thousand-kilometre motorcycle rally on ice and snow in sub-Arctic Norway. The most I’d ever ridden in my life was 50 kilometres before I headed to Norway. Then I was there with 27 German men and we were riding on the ice and snow.
I’m terrified of doing these things. I don’t enjoy doing them at the time. I do enjoy the memories. But I wanted to create outrageous stories. I wanted to capture the imagination of other people who need hope so that they could see if I can go and swim with sharks, hang out with live alligators and do all these crazy things that if all they want to do is be able to put food on the table for their kids or make sure that they have great birthdays, that they know that they can do it.
What can people do to support the Up With Women right now?
If you’re a certified coach, volunteer with us. It sounds simple, but even a gift of $10 can make a huge difference. We have a proven program that works. If you think about Mother’s Day or holidays, and the flowers that you’re going to buy, take that $40 that you would have spent and give it to the program so that we can get these mothers out of poverty in a year. That’s a gift that lasts a lifetime.
For the month of May, Canadians can visit any major retailer where method is sold and pick-up a bottle of method Hand Soap. 50¢ from each bottle sold between now and May 31st will go toward supporting Up With Women, up to $20,0000, to help fund their coaching program.
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