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Women & Leadership: Going places

Meet 4 Concordians at the top of the travel and tourism industry
April 28, 2022
By Aviva Engel, BA 02

The gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions worldwide has been cause for celebration — and a boon for workers in travel and tourism.

Among the grateful is a select group of graduates who have impacted these sectors with equal parts passion, perseverance and visionary leadership.

Meet four women who credit Concordia with launching their journeys to the top of the travel and tourism industry.

‘I recognize the importance of this work’

Karen Seymour, BA 94, Ministry Of Tourism, Bahamas | Photo: Kemuel Stubbs

What keeps Bahamas native Karen Seymour, BA 94, focused on her job as an executive director with the country’s Ministry of Tourism?

“Approximately half of our GDP and workforce is dependent on this sector,” notes the Nassau-based Seymour, who has served her department for more than two decades. “So I recognize the importance of this work. The ministry is the backbone of the industry. And that genuinely keeps me going.

”Seymour’s career with the ministry began in the United Kingdom, where she also completed her MBA at the University of Surrey. But even as a French studies major at Concordia from 1992 to 1994, Seymour’s goal was to someday return to the Bahamas to directly contribute to her country’s growth and prosperity. “I always wanted to work for our Ministry of Tourism,” she says proudly.

“I had begun to study French in the Bahamas, and Concordia was one of the best and most affordable options for me to complete my bachelor’s degree. I had a few wonderful professors and thoroughly enjoyed my time in Montreal."

As executive director of Industry Facilitation, Seymour oversees a number of programs and initiatives — special events and conferences, heritage and culture, and sports tourism — across 15 islands.

Global tourism was severely impacted by the pandemic and the Bahamas was no exception, says Seymour. She and her team dealt with the challenges of COVID-19 with creativity and resourcefulness.

“We quickly pivoted to a virtual environment in order to stay in contact with our industry partners. While we were unable to communicate directly with our consumers, we compiled a comprehensive recovery program which involved training and promotions, and which ensured the health and safety of our visitors and our residents."

Seymour describes her work as a true calling. Being able to travel extensively is a nice perk of the job, too.

“I’ve been to and seen so many wonderful places and met so many amazing people. I sometimes laugh when I think back to what I assumed my career would look like. My outlook was shockingly naïve. But I have truly come a long way.”

‘My experience at Concordia paved the way’

Stephanie Farr Stephanie Farr, BComm 03, Maya Luxe | Photo: Connie Suarez Bravo

Stephanie Farr, BComm 03, foresaw a career in veterinary medicine before a summer job cleaning pools persuaded her to pivot.

“I realized how much freedom I had being my own boss, making my own money and being in control of how quickly I could scale my financial success,” says the founder and owner of Maya Luxe, a company that offers luxury villa rentals and authentic experiences throughout Riviera Maya, Mexico.

“It was one of the best decisions of my life. My experience at Concordia paved the way for where I am today.”

As a first-year student at the John Molson School of Business, Farr travelled to Cuba on a trip coordinated by the university’s Latin American Student Organization (LASO). She eventually joined the group and helped organize events herself, all of which prompted a profound interest in and exploration of Latin America.

“Then, during my last semester, I embarked on an exchange program at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, Mazatlán campus, where I studied Spanish and international business. I was very grateful to Concordia for the opportunity. It led to my career and business in Mexico.”

The day-to-day of running Maya Luxe, which also offers property management and real-estate development services, keeps Farr pretty busy. So, too, does Rise Relief Fund, a non-profit arm of the business focused on sustainability, community development and support for locals in Riviera Maya.

“What gets me up in the morning is knowing I can make a difference for our environment and community,” says Farr. “I truly believe in social entrepreneurship — and we have the ability to leverage our business to be able to give back and make a positive impact.”

Curating unforgettable experiences for her clients — “the why of what we do” — also inspires the Concordia alumna and deepens her attachment to the Yucatán Peninsula.

“Waking up every day in this paradise is very rewarding. I’m beyond grateful to be surrounded by so much beauty and cultural richness.”

‘I feel lucky to nurture my childhood passion’

Maria Pagano Maria Pagano, BComm 03, Air Transat | Photo: Vadim Daniel

As a child, Maria Pagano, BComm 03, longed to be like Angela Bower, the driven marketing executive played by Judith Light on the 1980s sitcom Who’s The Boss?.

Hired to oversee Brand and Customer Experience for Air Transat in October 2021, Pagano takes a lot of pride in providing exceptional and personalized customer experiences.

“It’s rewarding to work in a job that truly sparks me,” says the civil and commercial aviation industry veteran. “I have fun every day and feel lucky to be able to nurture my childhood passion.”

In her role, Pagano leads brand and positioning strategy for all Transat brands in Canada and in international markets. The work includes strategic planning, market research, customer segmentation and the execution of brand-awareness campaigns.

It’s all for a greater good: helping people realize their travel dreams. And that’s meaningful, says Pagano.

“Our marketing campaigns help people discover new destinations. Travel has the transformative power to help us restore energy and creativity, expand knowledge of other cultures and connect with loved ones. It’s a great privilege to be involved in connecting individuals to discovery and travel, particularly after COVID-19 restricted our ability to do so.

”Pagano describes her experience as a Department of Marketing student at John Molson as crucial. She certainly made the most of her time, serving in key roles with the John Molson Marketing Association and earning valuable summer internship experience that led to a full-time job with Bombardier after graduation.

“My time at Concordia was critical to where I am now in my career,” says Pagano. “The Marketing program helps prepare students for the real world. The multiculturalism of the student body and staff enlightened and equipped me for my future roles. And I also appreciated the emphasis placed on teamwork and strong communication skills, which continues to serve me immeasurably well as a business leader.”

‘When people see the world, they gain a broader perspective’

Rita Toporowski Rita Toporowski, MBA 90, Via Rail Canada | Photo: Via Rail

Rita Toporowski, MBA 90, is both a big-picture and detail-oriented thinker. She has to be as vice-president of Customer Experience at Via Rail Canada, where she and her team contribute to the company’s strategic vision and to major projects associated with its efforts to upgrade and modernize.

From a customer-experience perspective, Toporowski oversees a variety of operations, such as direct customer interactions and delivering a safe, comfortable, accessible and enjoyable travel experience.

“My days are not routine, which is attractive to me,” says Toporowski, who indirectly manages more than 1,000 employees. “My job ranges from one-on-ones with my direct reports and helping to facilitate things for them, to driving improvement projects and, of course, adjusting to COVID-19, which has been anything but routine.”

Toporowski has channelled her passion for travel into a career that has now endured for more than two decades. She got her start when two companies recruited her out of Concordia: One offered a position in sales; the other a more strategy-oriented role.

“I chose the strategy role, which was with Air Canada,” she says. “Once I was in it, I got excited because travel is something personal and tangible. It affects people’s lives. When people see the world, they open up their eyes and gain a broader perspective on life.”

Toporowski has fond memories of her time at what was then Concordia’s Faculty of Commerce and Administration. She was involved in a number of student associations and participated in the Concordia Small Business Consulting Bureau, an initiative designed to equip MBA candidates with constructive advice and tools.

“It enabled me to take theory and apply it in the real world, in a controlled environment,” says Toporowski. “It was really good, practical experience. One of the contracts we had was with a small paper company — we had to analyze its performance and recommend improvements.”

The Via Rail Canada executive encourages current John Molson students to “take opportunities outside your wheelhouse and learn from them. Highlight your transferable skills, even if you lack the specific expertise of a given position.

”Finding mentors and building networks is also important, adds Toporowski.

“Look for opportunities to help others learn and grow. Always be mindful of other people, whether it’s your customers or your team members. Their success is your success.”

The Concordia Alumni Women and Leadership program empowers women graduates to connect, share professional experiences and expertise, and learn from each other. In this series, meet leaders from among Concordia’s nearly 110,000 alumnae who fill the ranks of business leaders, media, engineering, science, the arts, humanities and more. 

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