Years ago, as a practicing nurse and midwife, Sara Wolfe (Executive MBA ’17) helped women deliver new life into the world. Today, as director of the Indigenous Innovation Initiative with Grand Challenges Canada, she’s helping creative problem solvers breathe new life into their communities.
Armed with years of experience working in healthcare innovation and a hard-earned Executive MBA from the Rotman School, she’s ready to help some of the most underserved communities solve a few of their greatest challenges.
Sara Wolfe (Executive MBA '17)
The initiative has successfully completed its first round of funding and invested $2.5 million towards 10 promising innovation projects. The projects vary in approach — one is focused on launching sustainably-packaged Indigenous cosmetics products, another involves creating a holistic media production company to support emerging Indigenous artists — but they all take aim at advancing Indigenous gender equality in the communities in which they are based.
“Innovation is a huge part of the Indigenous identity,” says Wolfe. “Soon enough, the entire country will realize how Indigenous communities are critical to Canada’s innovation ecosystem.”
Doing things differently
In many ways, Wolfe is the ideal person to head up the Indigenous innovation portfolio for Canada. Doing things differently, serving communities and integrating Indigenous knowledge into existing practices have been recurring themes in her life and career.
Growing up in Northern Ontario, the idea of working in social finance or leading system-level impact seemed inconceivable.
“When I was growing up, Native kids didn’t go to university,” says Wolfe, who is Anishnawbe-kwe, with ties to Brunswick House First Nation. “It never felt like an option for us.”
Eager to assert her independence and do something meaningful, she ignored the rhetoric around her and pursued a nursing degree, finding purpose in the work.
“It became very clear that my work would always be in service to communities,” she explains.
She gravitated towards midwifery, which was widely perceived as an unsafe and risky option for expectant mothers. Undeterred, Wolfe sought to legitimize the practice and co-founded Seventh Generation Midwives Toronto. She knew that establishing a midwifery practice was critical, especially one that incorporated Indigenous ways of knowing and doing and followed an Indigenous governance, but the two-person practice soon grew to include 33 staff associates.
“I started to think about how I could change an entire system, and that meant improving the lives of thousands or tens of thousands of families.”
- Sara Wolfe Executive MBA 17"
Through all of this, Wolfe found a natural role in management and administration.
“I was in my element. I thrived on finding ways to secure financing, engage stakeholders and work with — and challenge — policies,” she explains. “I could see the big picture and how all these smaller pieces could come together to make it work.”
“As a midwife, I knew I could profoundly change the lives of all the families I worked with. I started to think about how I could change an entire system, and that meant improving the lives of thousands or tens of thousands of families.”
How Rotman opened doors
Wolfe came to the Rotman School determined to acquire the expertise in marketing, strategy, finance, and other fundamental business areas so that she could advocate for herself, as well as her community, better.
More than that, ideas started to come together in business school.
“I remember joking with my classmates about why a midwife would need to take a finance class — but that class demystified Bay Street and markets for me. It really gave me the confidence to work in social finance today,” she says.
“I enrolled in business school hoping that it would open doors for me. I didn’t expect the MBA to open doors in my mind as well.”
Wolfe also acquired a strong network at Rotman, one that continues to support her in her work today. Since word has spread that she is heading up the Indigenous innovation portfolio, former classmates and fellow alumni have reached out and offered up their networks to support her.
It’s great timing too, as she’s busier than ever. With Wolfe’s help, Grand Challenges — whose founding chairman was none other than the late Joseph L. Rotman — just launched a new fundraising campaign to finance another round of projects to drive positive change in communities.
At the same time, she has her eye on helping Canada build a global network that connects Indigenous communities from all over the world. Though Indigenous people make up just five percent of the global population, they own or occupy a quarter of the earth’s land and look after 80 per cent of its biodiversity.
“If we don’t come together in thoughtful ways, we’ll miss out on a huge opportunity to save our planet,” explains Wolfe.
All of this work feeds into a greater vision of driving meaningful change in local and global communities. Wolfe hopes she’s joined by other energetic leaders — perhaps a few Rotman alumni.
“I’ve met so many aspiring leaders who want to do more and do better,” says Wolfe. “It’s easy to get started: check your power. Look for ways you can lend your power, knowledge and influence to lift others up. That can be a powerful source of change.”
Written by Rebecca Cheung | More Student Stories »