With a background in program development and strategy, Zoya delights in designing experiences that inspire community resilience and social impact. Currently, she organizes capacity-building workshops, talks, and training sessions at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI). Alongside her work at the Centre for Social Innovation, Zoya co-leads The Burnout Project. Zoya is a three-time TEDx speaker and has been recognized as a YWCA Metro-Vancouver Woman of Distinction.
SIA: How did you enter this space?
Zoya Jiwa: It has been an unconventional pathway! Several years ago, I took a couple semesters off from my university studies due to a health setback. I took the time to focus on my wellbeing and reflect on the trajectory of my school and career pathway. I was pursuing a major in Sociology, which offered a helpful lens to understand social, economic, and environmental issues with particular attention to intersectionality, inequality, and social systems. At the time, I was navigating neurological symptoms that made it challenging for me to focus on reading and writing lengthy papers for long periods of time, so I saw that as an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone and try something different. I applied and was accepted into an experiential, intensive program that focused on designing community-driven responses to pressing environmental and social issues in Metro-Vancouver. The program’s highlight was the iterative, imperfect, humbling process of project design. We moved from the initial stages of research to building a responsive community project. With each conversation, we recognized more and more fully the complexity and depth of the issue my project team was trying to address.
It was during this program that I learned about systems change and first heard the term “social innovation.” It was described to me as “designing novel responses to systemic social and environmental issues.” I immediately thought, “oh, that’s what I want to do.”
It offered an enticing blend of thoughtful and community informed research, human-centred design, and the creative opportunity to merge theory I learned in my Sociology classes with practice. After that program, I was inspired to add two certificates alongside my Sociology degree: one in Sustainable Community Development and another in Entrepreneurship & Innovation. I got involved with RADIUS, the social innovation lab at my university. I was initially accepted into their fellowship program, then a social innovation research program, and eventually I joined their team as a Program Coordinator to support their undergraduate student programs. At that time, I was also working on my own project called As We Are, which was a fashion blog and interview series exploring what it means to live a vibrant life with chronic illness.
From there, I honed in on my interests in program development and design. Initially I worked with a national charity as a consultant on their youth programs and engagement strategy. Afterwards, I moved to Toronto and landed my current role at the Centre for Social Innovation, where I have endless opportunities to merge my interests in research, program development, experience design, and community resilience. My career pathway has been far from linear, but truly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
SIA: What are some of the issues that you care about that you’re able to contribute to with your work? Can you share what impact means to you?
ZJ: So far, my career has focused on organizing and facilitating experiential learning opportunities that inspire empathy and understanding, nurture resilient and caring communities, and create sustainable and positive impact. A common theme across the work I’ve done is seeking to support people through transitional life stages: youth preparing to graduate from high school or university, young adults learning to independently manage their health and healthcare, and now, early stage social entrepreneurs on the cusp of starting something new. I care deeply about this: reminding people that they aren’t alone in challenges and changes they’re navigating, and offering spaces and resources for them to courageously step into the next phase of their lives. Impact, to me, is about listening first, shedding ego, and showing up with curiosity and openness of how to truly be useful and helpful to communities we aim to serve. It’s about ensuring that we put the people we want to help at the forefront, as they know and understand the challenges best.
SIA: Are there any misconceptions about your profession, field or space you’re in?
ZJ: At CSI, our work is largely focused on bringing people together to collectively catalyze solutions and social impact. We focus our work on building the Next Economy — one that is sustainable, equitable, and prosperous for all. While we have theories of what this looks and feels like in practice, there might be a misconception that we have very clear, succinct, formulaic answers to solve social problems. Social innovation isn’t a simple, three-step process. Complex challenges necessitate equally complex, systems-level responses that take time, require diverse voices and ideas, and thrive on collaboration. CSI exists to facilitate the connections to help get to these solutions.
SIA: What are some skills required in your position on a day-to-day basis?
SIA: Could you share with us the best life or career advice you’ve received?
LC: I have learned to offer myself the same compassion and kindness that I would to a friend. I previously put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself to know the exact pathway of my career and measured my worth based on what I accomplished and how productive I was in reaching my goals. I faced cycles of high stress and burnout as a result. I realized that if I was always chasing the next thing, I was often missing the present moment and fantastically ordinary sources of joy. Today, in addition to my work, I intentionally create space for rest that restores my energy, play that exercises my creative muscles, and meaningful relationships that light up my life. Our world and our lives change rapidly. Slowing down and creating space for pause has actually allowed me to be more resilient, adaptable, and open to taking different directions. As one of my team members recently said, “sometimes to go forward fast, we need to go slow.”
Zoya shared some incredibly valuable insights about her career and life experience so far. Here are the some that stuck with our team:
We are so grateful for Zoya’s contribution to our Career Maps. If you want to learn more about the social innovation intermediary space, or about the work CSI is doing, reach out to Zoya on LinkedIn.