WORLD OF CHOICES JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENT SPEECH
My Secrets of Success
By Evelyn L. Ackah
May 27, 2011
Good afternoon young ladies, career ambassadors and guests. I am
honoured to be here today to speak with you at the World of Choices
event, hosted by Junior Achievement of Southern Alberta. I have a special
place in my heart for Junior Achievement as I served on the Board of JA
for almost five years when I was living in Toronto. I also did lots of inclass training and programming that allowed me to meet students and
experience the excitement of the JA programs. So when Hailey Pinto
invited me to be your keynote speaker today, I had to accept!
As you may know, I have been working as a lawyer for over 14 years (my
goodness I feel old!). I started my career in Toronto initially practicing
corporate/commercial law, and for the past 10 years or so I have been
working as a business immigration lawyer. Sometimes it surprises me
how things have turned out in my life! I don’t think when I was younger I
thought I would be living the life I am living now - I have been blessed.
However, it does need to be said that there are still professional
challenges that I face every day. For instance, at one of my previous law
firms there are only 4 Black lawyers across Canada out of a total of 550
lawyers. Sometimes it definitely feels lonely on the road of success. For
so much of my life, I have been the first and only. The first person in my
immediate family to go to university, the only Black child in my school,
the only Black child in my class, one of 5 Black students in my law
school and on and on it goes. Often, I am the only person of colour in the
boardroom with clients and colleagues and sometimes, even the only
woman among a sea of men in navy suits!
By way of background, I was born in Accra, Ghana which is in West
Africa. At the age of 5, I immigrated to Vancouver with my parents and
that is where I grew up.
In elementary school I was not a remarkable student – mostly C+’s and
B’s, but I was very active in and out of school. I played a lot of sports –
soccer, volleyball, floor hockey and track and field. Outside of school I
took dance classes, swimming lessons, gymnastics and sang in the choir.
And in the summers my parents put me into classes to keep me busy. I
attending conferences and volunteered extensively. My parents believed
in keeping their two daughters occupied and engaged – it was a very
smart parenting strategy because for the most part, it kept us out of
When I was young I was in a dance troupe in Vancouver that performed
all over the province. One performance was at a major gala honouring
young people who had achieved great things in many different categories
– academics, sports, the arts, community achievement, essay writing etc.
It was a major event at the time in Vancouver. There were upwards of
1,000 guests in a magnificent hotel ballroom beautifully dressed in their
best clothes and strutting their stuff.
We were proud to have the
opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge the achievements of these
young people. That night, after performing with the Dance Troupe, I
watched the awards in awe. I saw all these young people jumping on
stage to receive their certificates and awards and I was so impressed and
motivated. I vowed that night that the following year I would be on that
stage. When the application time came for the Achievement Awards the
following year, I submitted entries for every category that I was eligible
for. Though I didn’t win an award that year, I collected a lot of certificates
of merit and I certainly got on that stage – a lot!
I learned a valuable lesson that year and as a result, I developed a
more specific goal or dream for myself – I didn’t want to simply be on
the stage, but I actually wanted to win an award and be on stage. And
you know what? My specific, detailed, goal was realized. The following
year, I won several awards in different categories – I was on stage a lot!
It was a proud moment. But for me, it was more than just about winning
the awards, the lesson I learned from that experience was very powerful –
that if you set clear, precise and measured goals for yourself and
dream big – you can often reach your goals. It taught me the power of
goal setting and visualization as well as the importance of sharing your
goals with others so they can support your efforts. This lesson that I
learned at the Achievement Awards many years ago has served me well
throughout my life when dealing with all kinds of challenges and
As I said before, I was a good student, but not a great student. In high
school I got Bs, except for algebra where I couldn’t seem to get more than
a C+ in grade 11 algebra.
My parents attended the parent-teacher
meetings at my school every year without fail. During a meeting with my
parents, the algebra teacher told my parents, “she’s doing okay no need to
worry”. My father asked my teacher if his daughter came home with a C+
would he be happy? The teacher said “no – my daughter wants to get into
the commerce program at UBC”. Then my father asked if a C+ was a
good enough mark to get into university? and again the teacher said no.
My father told him that if it a C+ isn’t good enough for your daughter to
get into university, then why is it good enough for my daughter? My
teacher said that he had no idea that I was planning on attending
university – he had not even thought it was a possibility for me. He
did not have the same high expectations of me that my parents had.
You can be assured that I had an algebra tutor the following week!
This is one of many examples throughout my life where my parents
dreamed a future for me that I could not yet begin to dream for
myself at the age of 15 or 16.
It is also one of the many instances where we saw how setting low
expectations could lead to low results. You must learn to set your
own standards and goals and make it clear to everybody that you
expect to succeed in life and surpass all expectations. Never let
anyone limit your achievements and potential.
After highschool, I attended Simon Fraser University. University is where
I feel I really blossomed. I loved the courses and the independence of
learning what I wanted and the thrill of achieving great grades. In 1993, I
graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science. I wasn’t
sure what was next for me, so I took one year off to develop a plan.
During that year, I decided that I wanted to become a lawyer, with all of
my community activism and involvement in the community; I thought it
would provide me with further credibility to speak about the issues that
were important to me. At the time, I was involved with Women’s Groups,
Multicultural organizations, the Rotary Club, volunteering with Big
Sisters and B.C.’s Children’s Hospital as well as university organizations.
I studied hard for the LSAT – the Law School Admissions Test and wrote
it during my year off from school. I was accepted to the University of
British Columbia based on my academic performance as well as my
community involvement. I encourage all young people to get involved
and give back to their community – no matter how young you are –
you can make a difference to someone or an organization in your
community - whatever it is, do something to help someone other than
yourself – it is a truly rewarding experience and the payback to you is
Law school was a challenging time – learning to think analytically and
competing with people who were just as committed and motivated as I
was –was truly a unique experience.
There were only 4 Black law
students at UBC out of 550 students! I became the national president of
the Black Law Students Association of Canada and planned the first
Western Canada annual conference in Vancouver – it was a lot of work,
but I committed to it and with the help of my BLSAC executive and the
members of the Black community in Vancouver, we made it happen and it
was a success.
After law school, I moved to Toronto, determined to make it on Bay
Street. I quickly got an articling position at a Bay street firm and worked
incredibly hard – day and night for a full year learning the practice of law
and trying to prove myself. Articling is like interning – you work under
the guidance of senior lawyers to learn what it is that lawyers do.
Although I had a good, productive year, none of the three articling
students at my firm that year was hired back – there were no positions
available – the firm was not growing that year – 1997 as there was a bit of
a recession that year. You can imagine the disappointment I felt after
writing my bar exams and becoming a lawyer and not knowing if and
when I would be able to use those newly acquired legal skills. I worked
hard to find a job and within a month of getting called to the bar, I found
employment at a small corporate law firm. I learned a lot during my two
years there and when I felt the time was right, I moved to a larger law
firm that was affiliated with an accounting firm.
I stayed there and
learned business immigration law and gained valuable business
development skills over a six year period. However, when I felt that there
was no further advancement opportunities, and I had hit the proverbial
glass ceiling, rather than remain at that firm and accept my circumstances,
I made the leap to another law firm, as one of my mentors who was at that
firm mentioned me and my practice and I was made an offer within two
days. At this new firm, I grew my own business immigration practice into
a million dollar practice. When the time came for partnership, they asked
me to wait another year – needless to say, I was very disappointed. As a
result of my hard work and networking across Canada, Fraser Milner
Casgrain here in Calgary came knocking and offered me partnership as
well as made me the national head of the business immigration practice –
this was an offer that I could not refuse. That is the reason I am now in
Calgary – FMC and a chance to be closer to my family in Vancouver and
continue advancing my career.
One thing I have learned throughout my career is to never accept the
limitations that others place on me – I have always followed the path that
I set for myself. Whenever I have felt blocked in my personal or career
development, I have looked for ways to get around the obstacles and
forged new paths for myself.
Also, I must stress the importance of
building relationships and keeping in touch with people as most of my
professional or volunteer board positions have come by way of my
networks – not applications.
In December 2010, I realized that the time had come for me to really
challenge myself and pursue my dream of owning my very own law firm!
I spent considerable time planning and when developing a strategy and I
launched Ackah Business Immigration Law. It has been great. Initially
starting with just me, there are now 5 of us working at the firm, paralegals
and legal assistants and soon, another lawyer to join me as I open a
Vancouver office as well. All of my clients moved with me and they have
been following me and my career across Canada for many years. I am
very lucky to love what I do and I have devoted a lot of time to it. It
doesn’t happen overnight that you find your calling, but my advice is to
expose yourself to as many different things as possible and be open to the
challenge of learning and committing to something new – something that
may surprise you. All through law school, I thought I was going to be a
corporate lawyer – doing transactions – buying and selling businesses and
dealing with stocks etc. – but it was only when I did it for some time that I
realized I didn’t love it and that instead of working with paper and being
shut in a board room for days and nights working through papers and
contracts, I loved the people side of the work – talking with clients,
meeting people in my office and hearing about their businesses and how I
could directly assist them.
I loved the sense of achievement and
satisfaction that came when I helped someone enter Canada to start a new
job and they got a visa or a work permit and they and their family were
able to make Canada and the US home.
Finding the area of business immigration law is something that makes me
very happy – I’m not sure I would still be working as a lawyer if I had not
eventually found my way to this work. Essentially, I assist corporations
in Alberta and around the world, identify workers that they need to fill
jobs in Canada that they have not been able to fill. I then work with them
and the company to complete the work permit applications for the
individual and the documents for the accompanying family members so
they can enter Canada and start their new life there – sometimes it’s just
for a few weeks or months, other time’s it is a permanent move to Canada
and then they become Permanent Residents and eventually citizens. We
do this for businesses – hence the name business immigration –
sometimes for one employee – or even 100 employees! We also assist
with getting people into the United States or around the world. I love this
work because I do get to travel – so that I can meet my clients if their
businesses are in Canada or the US and I learn a lot about other countries
and their laws and processes. This is my calling, it is what I love and
even with the long hours and weekend work and sometimes calls in the
middle of the night for nervous travellers obtaining work permits who
need some coaching before they get on the plane to make their application
– I love it and wouldn’t trade it for anything!
There are a few messages in this address that I would like to highlight for
you today to think about – the main one being the importance that parents
play in their children’s success. I don’t say it enough, but now at my age,
looking back and seeing some of the challenges and adversities I have
overcome, I recognize that I owe my parents a lot of gratitude and
admiration. They raised two great daughters who funny enough both
became lawyers. My younger sister Audrey attended U of T law school
and worked in Toronto for several years before returning to Vancouver
last spring, just before I relocated to Calgary. She practices employment
and labour law. It is no accident that we have been successful – we had
What are my passions and how do they relate to my profession and
I love people, meeting new people, learning about their lives and trying to
be of assistance and service. The Canadian Women’s Foundation is one
of the charities that I spend a lot of time working with – it helps bring
low-income women and their children out of poverty. I love the United
Way and the YWCA and lots of local, smaller community organizations. I
love relating with others and finding common connections. I’ve managed
to turn it into a career that I love!
For you young ladies, I have some secrets of success to share with
1) Never, ever let someone tell you that you aren’t smart enough
or capable enough – you are all brilliant. Persevere, work
hard, focus – write down your goals every few months and pin
them on the wall so that you can see them each day – envision
yourself reaching your goals and keep at it – don’t ever give
up. Don’t let any setbacks throw you off course.
2) Don’t dream small dreams – dream big dreams – tell people
about your dreams – let everyone know.
The secret with
dreaming big is that even if you don’t get 100% of the way to
your goal, the 80% or 90% that you do accomplish will still be
remarkable and will give you a great sense of pride.
3) Seek out mentors – as a young person and even now as a not
so young person, I always look for mentors to guide. Ask your
mentors if they can share some of their experiences with you
regarding their journey to where they are now in their lives.
Seek their advice when you need guidance. I have learned a
great deal from my mentors over the years.
4) Give back to your community – it is vital to being a successful
person – to give of your time, energy and resources to those
less fortunate than yourself. You will meet wonderful people
and it will enrich your life immensely.
5) Listen to your parents when they try to guide you and your
decisions – they only want the best for you. I know you may
not want to hear this, but oftentimes, they do know best – so
respect them and listen to them. As I said earlier, I wouldn’t
be standing on this stage addressing you, if it weren’t for my
6) Everyone has a calling and your real job over your entire life is
to figure it out and get to the business of doing it! What are
you good at? What comes naturally to you? What gives you
that excitement and buzz?
7) Nobody but you is responsible for your life.
responsibility for it now – no excuses! Life is too short to
waste time complaining – just go for it.
8) Lastly, as you reach each goal you must constantly keep
setting new goals to work towards – there is always something
more to learn or do or experience in life – this is our purpose
in life - to be better tomorrow than we are today. You should
never stop dreaming and setting goals. I found that after law
school and when I started working as a lawyer, I had a bit of a
pause as I didn’t know what else was next for me – I realized
that I had achieved so much, but in order to stay sharp and
focused, I needed more goals to achieve. I began running 10ks
then half-marathons, then bought my first house, then my
second house, then travelling to Africa and Europe etc. you
need to constantly be setting goals for yourself – you can’t rest
on your laurels. We are meant to live this life fully.
Before I close, I want to leave you with an excerpt from a poem written
that Nelson Mandela quoted during his inauguration as President of South
Africa. It is called “Our Deepest Fear”.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened
about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do – so go ahead and shine on!!