INTERVIEWS by Stephen Ibaraki

Gisèle Yasmeen, Globally Engaged Researcher, Speaker, Executive and Senior Fellow UBC Institute of Asian Research

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Gisèle Yasmeen.

Gisele YasmeenGisèle Yasmeen is currently Senior Fellow at the University of British Columbia's Institute of Asian Research and incoming Director of Social Protection for WIEGO. She is the former Vice-President, Research at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council – a Canadian Federal Government research-granting agency. Gisèle has worked in research and higher education for more than 20 years and has undertaken and managed research and related activities across the public, academic and not-for-profit sectors. She has published widely and her work has taken her all over Canada and around the world. Gisèle has a PhD from UBC, an MA from McGill and a BA Honours from the University of Ottawa and is the recipient of a number of awards. She is fluent in English and French and has studied a number of other languages. More information is available on her website at:

General info on CATCH program:

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:27: Congratulations on your recent successes. Can you talk about some of the upcoming projects you have and the value to stakeholders?
"....To have come home to my old institute at UBC to do Asian research is a real thrill after so many years away. More recently I was appointed incoming Director of Social Protection for WIEGO an international not-for-profit called Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing...."

:01:20: Can you describe your journey of continuing enlightenment from a young age and any milestones?
"....I was born and lived in Montreal in a very multi-cultural, multi-lingual neighbourhood until I was about six when we moved to Western Canada, and have since lived all over Canada. I've had a range of experiences; in big cities, small towns, multi-cultural settings and have lived with indigenous communities as well....As an adult while I lived abroad I travelled a lot, so I'd like to think of myself as a citizen of the world with a Canadian passport. I think that's how my experience has shaped my world view...."

:02:38: How did your life change in university; what were the milestones and what lessons did you learn that continue to shape your vision into the future?
"....I think going to university is one of those experiences where you really crystallize your world view. You are serious about the world as well as acquiring knowledge and a skill base that can take you forward....I was privileged throughout my university career at the University of Ottawa and McGill and the University of British Columbia to have some really outstanding mentors and professors. I think what I'm most grateful for is having that mentorship and guidance and having worked with some terrific colleagues...."

:04:45: What projects and lessons can you share as Senior Fellow at the University of British Columbia's Institute of Asian Research?
"....I've been involved with a couple of international as well as nationally focused food security projects. I've also been on the International Scientific Advisory Board for a Dutch Computer Science Research Program. It's quite interdisciplinary even though it is run out of computer science and involves cultural institutions (like libraries and museums), researchers and other experts from outside of computer science (social science, humanities, etc.)..."

:06:02: You are also the former Vice-President, Research at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council – a Canadian Federal Government research-granting agency; can you describe some projects and lessons from your time there?
"....I was Vice-President, Research and I was also Vice-President of Partnerships. My role evolved over seven years and it was a huge opportunity to work with our sister agencies NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research....We also advanced a lot on what SSHRC calls knowledge mobilization - which is creating value from knowledge....We did a number of very exciting projects similar to the one that I'm involved with in the Netherlands. One was called 'Digging into Data' which is on big data and involved a number of international players and agencies and disciplines from around the world....Another thing that we did where I was particularly involved was redoing our whole grant program architecture....I had the opportunity to lead a futures or foresight exercise. For an agency like SSHRC it was a bit risky and not without its controversies but to bring in that kind of futures orientation actually resulted in a well-established initiative which is still ongoing at SSHRC called Imagining Canada's Future...."

:09:20: Can you detail your work managing research and related activities across the public, academic and not-for-profit sectors?
"....That was a huge opportunity to oversee regional research and related activities but also to take part in national dialogues. Then I got recruited to oversee all the research and outreach in parliamentary affairs activities for Elections Canada as well as communications work.....I was recruited into SSHRC as Vice President – Partnerships and then Research; I am now am back at the Institute but more recently as incoming Director of Social Protection for WIEGO...."

:11:25: Please go into more detail your published work and lessons to be shared?
"....I have published on the scholarly side, but more recently over the last ten to fifteen years, I've really taken an interest in open access publishing. One of the big challenges in our society is that there is great work that is done that is not actually accessible to audiences, and with the whole digital revolution we have a real opportunity to make knowledge and other publications available to a much, much wider audience. I've been very involved in the open access movement in terms of my own publishing, and also done a lot of op-eds and shorter opinion pieces....I've been working a lot more on that front to try to consolidate some of the work I've done and make it more broadly accessible...."

:13:16: You have considerable linguistics skills – can you describe some of the languages you speak and how this came about?
"....English and French are my strongholds but I have also studied Urdu (which is like Hindi) and I've studied Thai. I've studied Spanish, a tiny bit of Italian and more recently have been studying Mandarin (which I am really enjoying especially since I'm back on the West coast and can practice regularly)....I'm excited about my new involvement with WIEGO because we do a lot of work in Spanish and I have an opportunity to work on my Spanish so I'm looking forward to that....My advice to young people is you are never wasting your time learning other languages, it's like having another life...."

:17:44: You have won many awards, can you tell us more about the journey leading up to these awards?
"....I don't feel like I've had that many awards but the few that stand out in my mind and one which I already mentioned was more of a team award, the IPAC-Deloitte Leadership Award for the work at SSHRC on this grant program architecture renewal....Earlier in my career I did benefit from a few awards related to my studies...."

:19:17: Describe your past academic roles, the journey and lessons?
"....I think the academic community considers me too non-academic and the non-academic side considers me too academic so I guess I've always been on the cusp of academia as well as the public/private/not-for-profit sectors which in some ways makes me little bit of a misfit, but in other ways positions me in interesting ways....I did have offers of the tenure track but I had other interesting offers at the same time which ended up shaping my career path. So I took a different journey forward into research oversight and administration executive-type functions...."

:21:33: Describe some megatrends and how they will shape the world and our destiny?
"....First would be global population aging. I think this is something we are not really ready for and it's a huge transition....The emerging technology. Not just digital, but life sciences and there's a bit of an overlap there as well. Technology should be a tool and should be serving us, not vice versa so there's some concern about where that might be going....The global centers of power, it took a long time for us all to wake up to the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Some of those economies including China are now slowing down, so there are other parts of the world that are emerging (Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, etc.), so we have to keep an eye on those emerging economies and it's not necessarily a Western-led center of gravity. I think there was an assumption that societies would somehow evolve and grow and develop and adopt certain Western enlightenment values, and I think there are a lot of people who are saying it's not necessarily the case, so how do we get along non-violently in a world where there are perhaps contradictory or conflicting sets of values and cultural norms and expectations?...."

:26:28: How can ICT executives act on your predictions?
"....I really don't believe in the concept of predictions but let's say there are issues that are preoccupying me. I think we all have to get out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves to think a bit differently than we normally do....Cross training the younger generation so that you don't end up with as many silos in professional environments where you have the business trying to communicate with IT and they don't really understand each other....Because all these technologies have a dark side too and could be used for harm, how do we maximize the potential for positive global change with the use of these technologies? We need those ICT executives to help us through that process...."

:29:06: What things continue to excite you?
"....One of my most favorite and most challenging jobs is being a mother and the privilege of watching a healthy, intelligent child grow from day one and the wonder of all that....One of my goals is to meet and talk to a new and interesting person, if not every day, at least once a week and that really keeps me going....The third thing I would mention is setting realistic goals and meeting them, for yourself and your career and for your family. I guess it's like a mini strategic planning exercise...."

:32:00: As a successful executive, what are your best leadership lessons that can be used by executives?
"....How do you make it self-motivating for the people you are working with and how do you empower them and create conditions so that they exercise their own leadership? At the end of the day I think leadership is about creating other leaders. It's about service and creating leadership capacity in others...."

:34:27: Agility is key today, whether with a start-up or launching a new product or service within a larger enterprise. The start-up mentality is required. What are the key steps for successful start-ups or for enterprises when producing innovations to keep them competitive?
"....I think the most competent start-up entrepreneurs (no matter what the area) are those who are able to combine those skills of reading their environment and getting their hands dirty and understanding both the high level and details of whatever it is that they are involved in...."

:37:29: What are the key attributes in individuals and teams that produce winning products and services?
"....Persistence, being able to soldier on is an absolutely essential feature, but the other (which we underestimated), is storytelling. You need a compelling, simple narrative that inspires and motivates people, but that also helps them understand the value of what it is that they are creating. Whether you are in the public, private or not-for-profit sectors what value are you creating, what's your value proposition? How do you articulate that simply for various audiences internally and externally?...."

:39:20: How do you know you have a winning product or service?
"....There are winners and there are losers. So I think by creating that value at the right time there is potential for success. But of course you can't be successful all the time. We learn a lot from our failures too...."

:42:21: Do you feel computing should be a recognized profession on par with accounting, medicine and law with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, personal responsibility, public accountability, quality assurance and recognized credentials?
"....How do you organize professions effectively? Sometimes professional regulatory bodies play a hugely important role but they can also be quite rigid in terms of allowing credentials recognitions, etc....One of the challenges is how do you take the best of what's happened in that regulatory environment for other professions, but take it to a different and new level and make it supple, yet build in the kind of safeguards that are in place for other professions? Having said that I think you need something for specialists but we also need more cross training so we need a broader digital literacy. It's a bit like reading, writing, arithmetic; those basic computing skills need to be at the heart of our whole educational enterprise...."

:45:21: How about ethics being part of this professionalism? From the last question, do you have any recommendations on the ethical front?
"....Values and ethics are at the heart of how our societies are supposed to work and how we are supposed to raise and educate our children both at home and in institutional environments....I think there's a broad social dialogue here. Technology has its own specific issues, but it's a broader concern and we have to talk about it as a society and decide where we set our boundaries...."

:47:23: What do you see as other areas, particularly related to computing, that you feel need to be brought into focus for discussion and policy?
"....I think what is so exciting about the work that I'm doing in the Netherlands now is how you bring experts from various disciplines (not just computer science but other fields and non-academic participants as well), into this whole question of having information technology benefit from as many individuals and organizations as possible. Multi-disciplinary is really important....I think the other is the gender component. For some reason in Western society, (it's not the case in Asia or Eastern Europe), but in North America at least and maybe parts of Western Europe, technology is seen as a 'guy' thing. So how do we get more women and girls interested? Something needs to be done there to make it a little more wholistic and inclusive so I think we need to look at that...."

:50:32: Can you discuss some of the major challenges that you faced in your life and how you were able to master them and perhaps some lessons you can share from that?
"....Sometimes you end up in a professional situation where you are given discouraging messages and you have to be able to look beyond that and muster up your courage and persistence to move forward....I think the fact that I grew up in so many different kinds of environments and moved around a lot, I had to learn to adapt and it also gave me a certain flexibility and suppleness as opposed to a rigidity. I think every challenge you go through makes you stronger....I think you have to give yourself sources of strength and spiritual fortitude, a few close friends you can count on, your supportive mentors and parents and older generations who are there to support you and also some health and spiritual practices that give you the resolve and energy to carry on....My mother is a nurse so I grew up with a lot of life and death stories from her nursing background. I think growing up with a mother who worked in that kind of environment and sharing those stories with me helped put various issues into perspective...."

:54:15: You have many interests. Do you have any areas that you want to talk about further? And in addition to that I'm am giving you an open canvas - are there any broader challenges that you would like to talk about?
"....One that really preoccupies me is we live in a world of abundance yet so many go without. We have enough food to feed very man, woman and child on this planet quite comfortably and it's a question of access, distribution and waste too. We don't talk much about waste; we create a lot and then we don't put a lot of effort into conserving, whether it’s food or knowledge. We need to put more efforts into how do we tread lightly on the earth but also minimize waste and more effective use of the resources we have. And how do we learn to get along with each other despite our differences? Whether it's our own training or background, cultural influences or language skills, or values etc., how do we get along non-violently?...."

:57:18: From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, please share some stories (perhaps amusing, surprising, unexpected or amazing).
"....I have this strange pattern in my life that I run into people in the most unusual places. I'll be in Bangkok, a city of more than ten million people, and I'll be on the SkyTrain and all of a sudden I will hear someone call my name, a friend from some distant part of the world, just happened to run into them....This happens to me all the time and I always see it as a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - it's one of these signs that something must be going right...."

:59:19: If you were conducting this interview, what 3 questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....When it comes to technology there is always this amazing potential but at the end of the day you’ve got to get people to do stuff and it's easier said than done. Where is that disconnect between theory and practice?....How do we recognize the fragility of technology and make sure we don't spin out into the Dark Ages again?....How do we grapple with the dark side of technology, how do we reconcile that and try to avoid those issues?...."

:01:02:17: Gisèle, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.