How Does a Husky Turn into a Foxx?
Dillon Ross CERTHR'17 BComm'17
If at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dillon Ross CERTHR'17 BComm'17 could have seen what his life would be like in 2022, he wouldn’t have believed it. While the rest of the world was shutting down in response to a global pandemic, one impromptu night opened the door for his life to be changed forever.
Like many around the world, Ross found himself working remotely, unable to spend time with family and friends and wondering how he would pass the time without his usual creative outlets.
“I’ve always had an interest in performance, from dancing and acting to comedy and drag, but always drag as a spectator,” he said. “I was involved in the dance community and was making connections in the drag community with performers asking me to choreograph or back-up dance for them.”
During one of the periods where restrictions were lifted, Ross’s friend convinced him to fill an open guest spot at a local drag show. Little did he know that his “one-time guest appearance” was just the beginning of something extraordinary. Cue the music, lights up and enter: Mya Foxx.
Mya Foxx is the quintessential 1990s and early 2000s pop and R&B diva. She is inspired by artists like Mýa, the Pussy Cat Dolls and Ashanti. Foxx made her debut in Halifax, and Foxx quickly gained followers and began performing locally before moving across the Maritimes and into Québec.
The spotlight continued to shine on Foxx when she joined the Canadian reality television series Call Me Mother in 2022. Foxx, along with other drag performers, received mentorship from drag legends (referred to as “mothers”) while competing in challenges to stay on the show and ultimately be crowned The First Child of Drag. While being selected to join the show was an honour for Foxx, her success on the show reinforced that following her passion was the right call.
Foxx at an on-campus pride event, Making it Mya: A Drag Dialogue with Dillon Ross held at the Patrick Power Library. From left to right, Kyle Cook, SMUSA Vice President- Advocacy, Mya Foxx (Dillon Ross), Dr. Rohini Bannerjee, AVP, Diversity Excellence, Professor of French, Suzanne van den Hoogen BA'90, University Librarian
Saint Mary’s set Ross up for career success
When Ross moved from Cape Breton to study at the Sobey School of Business for his undergrad, he admits that didn’t know what he didn’t know before arriving in Halifax. Through his time at Saint Mary’s, he made connections with people from around the world, gained new perspectives and began understanding more about who he was. Crediting his French professor for helping boost his confidence, Ross remembers the exact moment during a lecture when it all clicked.
“Dr. Rohini Bannerjee was telling our class about her experience in undergrad and how people were critical of her decision to study French even though she was on track to enter medical school. Today, she’s a professor of French and the Associate Vice-President of Diversity Excellence at Saint Mary’s. She encouraged us to follow our interests and to never define ourselves as one dimensional because you never know where your passions will take you.”
As a young professional, Ross knows that the skills and education he received from Saint Mary’s have helped him navigate his career in human resources and the entertainment industry. Putting education into practice, Ross uses his Bachelor of Commerce degree, a double major in Human Resource Management and Marketing, and his Certificate in Human Resource Management, to grow and enhance all aspects of his work.
When not on the stage as Foxx, Ross works as a Human Resource Manager at Sport Nova Scotia. His role allows him to put his people-first skillset at the forefront by helping employees feel empowered and included in their workplace. He credits Sport Nova Scotia for being incredibly accepting of Mya Foxx and allowing him to pursue this creative work. It is no coincidence that Ross is part of a team working to break down barriers during the workday, while after work, Mya Foxx steps onto the stage to do the same thing.
Reflecting on what it takes to succeed, Ross knows that his combination of education, skill, talent and hard work has gotten him to where he is today.
“As much fun as it is to perform, I have to run this as a business. From booking venues and building relationships with stakeholders to negotiating contracts, my critical thinking and analytical skills have been hugely helpful. And when it comes to marketing, I have a solid background in what it takes to create a successful brand and know what value I offer, and I can thank the Sobey School of Business for that.”
Using his platform for good
Ross has always believed in giving back and championing positive change. Through his HR work and performances as Mya Foxx, he is a role model for living authentically and pursuing one’s passions. In June 2022, Ross returned to the Saint Mary’s campus for Making it Mya: A Drag Dialogue with Dillon Ross, an event held by the Patrick Power Library.
Whether on social media or television or during a performance or speaking engagement, Ross is driven to bring conversations about equity, diversity and inclusion to the forefront and to be a positive icon for youth, professionals and, of course, queens.
Mya Foxx on the Canadian reality television series Call Me Mother
Dillon Ross, AKA Mya Foxx, is of Inuk heritage and currently lives in Kjipuktuk (Halifax). He is bilingual in English and French and is part of the 2SLGBTQ+ community. In addition to drag performance, he is a dancer, actor and choreographer. Ross is the recipient of the 2022 Saint Mary’s Young Alumni of the Year Award.
An Unexpected Road to the West Indies Senate
Isalean Phillip BA’16 MA’19
by Kate Watson
While she’s always had an interest in political space and political life, Isalean Phillip BA’16 MA’19 never imagined that her studies at Saint Mary’s would lead to her becoming a Senator and a Minister of State at home in the West Indies.
“I wasn’t thinking strategically about what I wanted to do after I graduated,” Minister Phillip says in a phone interview from St. Kitts and Nevis, an island country located about 3,000 kilometers from Halifax. “But I knew that I wanted to do something where I was connected to others and where I could make a difference in the world.”
“Connection,” both personal and in the wider sense, is what made her zero-in on Saint Mary’s after attending a recruitment session at Clarence Fitzroy Bryant College in St. Kitts. She did her research and was impressed by reviews that emphasized the university’s reputation for cultivating community connections. She also had family connections to Canada, including a cousin who was a student at Saint Mary’s.
She enrolled in 2012, and in 2016, graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts Honours Degree in political science and international development studies.
She then continued her studies in the Master of Arts program and completed her research in Women & Gender Studies and Policy Development and Implementation. Her thesis Where are the Black female faculty? Employment equity policy failures and the overrepresentation of whiteness earned her a Masters degree in 2019, as well as the 2018-19 Governor General’s Academic Gold Medal.
The road from graduation to political office included time working at an NGO in St. Kitts and Nevis. Her work focused on improving the health and wellbeing of people through research, public health interventions, events, campaigns and by offering public health support services to small organizations.
Leading up to the 2022 election in St. Kitts and Nevis, Minister Phillip volunteered on the Executive of the Women’s Arm of the Labour Party, which was working to appeal to and increase the female voter base.
When the Labour party won, they made good on their campaign rhetoric that included bringing more women and young people into government. Isalean Phillip was chosen to be one of three senators appointed by the winning party. The value of her education, work ethic and genuine desire to make a difference in the lives of others was recognized as she was appointed to be Minister of Youth Empowerment, Social Development, Gender Affairs, Ageing and Disabilities.
“Our demographics are shifting and we have an aging population. Fewer children are being born and people have a longer life expectancy. It’s very much like what’s happening in Nova Scotia,” explains Minister Phillip when asked why these seemingly disparate ministries would be combined.
“We’re working to ensure there is an appropriate system of support for everyone. I see it as being proactive in our pairing—instilling civic responsibility in our young people and a desire to care for our elders and others that need support.”
Minister Phillip is looking forward to her five-year term in government, but she’s not ready to make any decisions for the distant future.
“I’m happy and proud to be doing this work right now, but I don’t know what the future holds. I only know that I wish to serve others.”
Nurturing the Entrepreneurial Mindset From One Side of the World to Another
Ali Algermozi BComm’16
By Michaela Avery
For Ali Algermozi BComm’16, entrepreneurship is a passion. From creating a small yoga business on the Halifax waterfront to reimagining his family farm in Yemen, Algermozi sees opportunity everywhere.
During his first year at Saint Mary’s, Algermozi opened the yoga business with friends, giving him his first taste of entrepreneurship. This further drove his interest in commerce, ultimately graduating with a triple major in entrepreneurship, marketing and human resource management.
“Entrepreneurship and marketing helped me learn how to build the right platform for a business,” says Algermozi. “But I was interested in learning about human resources to bring in the right people. People are the key to creating a successful business.”
After working for a few years as a small business advisor at Scotiabank post-graduation, Algermozi hungered for his own business and to work for himself again. With the war worsening in his home country of Yemen, however, he decided to return home to be with his family. It was through this tragic time of war that he found his next big project.
Concerned about maintaining their basic resources, Algermozi’s father toyed with the idea of starting a small farm. The plan was to produce enough to sustain their family in case the war prevented their ability to obtain food. Algermozi saw the farm as an opportunity to build something bigger than themselves.
“With the current war situation, my mind automatically went to: why not create something that would benefit others, as well?”
Although farming was a new business plan for the Algermozi’s, they were not jumping in blindly. Algermozi’s grandfather owned an orange farm, which he remembers as a lot of fun from his childhood.
The Algermozi farm provided employment opportunities when many businesses were struggling, and the war's impact was something Algermozi's father knew all too well. His IT business of over 30 years and solar energy business over the last ten years had significant progress and growth before the war. Now, both companies face complex logistical issues. Out of the necessity to survive, Algermozi's father quickly adapted his business practices to ensure their sustainability.
With the complexities of doing business in war top of mind, the Algermozi's worked diligently to establish their new farm on solid footing. As a result of hard work and business acumen, they combined the family's practice of entrepreneurship and farming heritage to build what the farm is today.
And while his perseverance and success are clear, the gravity of what he and his father are doing is not lost on Algermozi.
"Starting and running a business under normal circumstances is challenging enough, but doing so during a war is an experience I never thought I would face. Whether it's our IT and solar energy businesses or the farm, I am learning so many skills just by diversifying the industries I am part of and the unique challenges we face."
On top of offering ample employment opportunities, the Algermozi farm is committed to providing food security and continuous food supply to the local markets in hopes of reaching self-sufficiency in the region. The farm produces moringa, sesame, fruit (including mango, figs, and pomegranate), grains, vegetables and livestock.
Learn more about the Algermozi farm and its mission at farms.algermozi.com.
Harvesting fruits at Algermozi farm
Ali's father, Nabil Algermozi
Figs grown at Algermozi farm
Millbrook First Nation Welcomes Claire Marshall Home
Claire Marshall BA
With a dynamic career spanning over 25 years, Claire Marshall who attended SMU from 1986-1990 in the BA program, has returned home to lead Millbrook First Nation as its Executive Director. Growing up as an off-reserve member in Truro, Marshall is committed to advancing the rights of Indigenous Peoples and after 30 years of working in Vancouver is happy to be back in her home territory of Miꞌkmaꞌki where she is closer to family. Since she’s been back, she has rekindled her friendships with several of her former SMU alumni that she lived with in residence.
Millbrook First Nation is home to over 2,200 community members and has 150 employees. As its Executive Director, Marshall is responsible for the operations of the multiple departments of the First Nation including Housing, Public Works, Education, Fisheries, Economic Development, Gaming, Culture and Heritage, Health, Education and Administration.
"My time at Saint Mary's helped me develop critical thinking, writing and research skills that I've leaned on throughout my career,” she says.
Marshall ran her own business for over 10 years in Vancouver, working across Canada specializing in Indigenous engagement and community development, working for organizations such as BC Hydro, TC Energy, BC Securities Commission, BC Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Council of Aboriginal Businesss, to name a few. She has brought her business and consultation experience to her new role.
"Returning to the east coast allowed me to bring the skills I've developed throughout my career and apply them to this vibrant and growing place and assist Millbrook First Nation to reach its full potential."
When considering what has been the key to her success, Marshall emphasizes that studying and working in supportive environments can make all the difference. She recalls one experience at SMU where she was involved in a racist incident, requiring the university leadership to become involved.
"This incident happened in 1987-88. At that time, I remember feeling so supported by the university and was relieved that this hurtful experience was handled well."
She is pleased to see that support for Indigenous students has grown. With Saint Mary's continuing to action its commitments to Truth and Reconciliation, Indigenous students have more opportunities to learn in an inclusive and reflective environment of their culture.
"It can be an especially difficult transition for Indigenous students who move to the city [Halifax] to attend school. Cultural awareness and creating the space for Indigenous students to share experiences is important."
Marshall is thrilled to see that Saint Mary's has dedicated resources for student support. "Support equals success. When we feel like we belong, we can do great things".
Click here to learn more about how Saint Mary's supports the Indigenous Community.
The Importance of Believing in Yourself
Rachel Abi Daoud BComm’15
Working as a corporate associate at Stewart McKelvey and having been recently called to the bar, Rachel Abi Daoud BComm’15 is thriving in her professional life as a Saint Mary’s alum. The Bachelor of Commerce graduate grew up in Dartmouth, NS, and lived in Lebanon on and off until the age of 11. Attending Saint Mary’s meant remaining close to home and studying at the same school as her older sister—who strongly encouraged her to apply. Rachel says her parents also inspired her. “My parents did not complete high school and have always encouraged me to reach beyond what I thought I could achieve.”
With a focus on global business management, finance and French during her time at the Sobey School of Business, Rachel worked briefly for Scotiabank before moving on to a financial analyst role with a small benefits consulting firm in Dartmouth. From there, she made the leap to law school, crediting Saint Mary’s with teaching her perseverance and the importance of hard work.
“Saint Mary's was very diverse and I learned the importance of continuing to learn and work in spaces with representation, diversity, mentors and role models that looked like me and were experiencing success or holding positions of power and influence.”
Rachel received the Sobeys Leadership Award during her time at Saint Mary’s, which changed her life by granting her access to higher education and giving her the confidence to continue her studies and seek challenging opportunities.
“The award helped me stay committed to my studies and opened doors for me in terms of networking opportunities. It also granted me the financial freedom to seek activities and opportunities outside of school to grow my network and balance my studies with other endeavors.”
Rachel is also a member of the Sobey Scholars Network, a cohort that includes recipients of philanthropic financial support from the Sobey Family, The Sobey Foundation, Sobeys Inc., and Empire Company Limited.
Having been in the shoes of current Sobey School of Business students, Rachel is eager to pass along words of wisdom. “My biggest advice would be to seek out opportunities and always network.” She also suggests simply saying “yes” to new opportunities. “There is so much you can do to further your quest beyond responding to a job post or sending a resume. Reach out to those in a field you’re interested in, an organization you want to join, or a person you want to connect with.” She says you’ll be surprised how many industry professionals will be excited and willing to help.
While the post-university world can be overwhelming and tricky to navigate, Rachel stresses the importance of reminding yourself that you are smarter and more capable than you think you are.
“If you believe you can, then you will. Always be kind to yourself and be your own cheerleader.”
To learn more about these life-changing scholarships and the Sobey Scholars Network, please visit our scholorship website.
Keisha Turner BA’12 and Michael Polak BComm’14
Cultivating Change Through an Indigenous Lens
Keisha Turner BA’12 and Michael Polak BComm’14
Very different paths led Keisha Turner BA’12 and Michael Polak BComm’14 to Saint Mary’s University and ultimately, to each other. The campus became the launching point for this powerful partnership, which has now manifested itself into the creation of Akwekon, an Indigenous consulting firm in Halifax.
Hailing from Hamilton, ON, Polak came to Halifax after expanding a retail clothing business he had started at home into the East Coast market. Craving more education in the business realm, he enrolled in commerce courses to build on his knowledge base and enhance his entrepreneurial side while introducing his brand to the student community at the same time.
On the other hand, Turner was raised in Yarmouth, NS, and made her way to Saint Mary’s with her sights set on the volleyball court. Passionate about well-being and meditation, Turner began experimenting with ways to bring these practices to student-athletes.
Her entrepreneurial spirit was ignited as she made a name for herself in the Halifax area with the creation of “Athletic Yogis.” This led to an employment opportunity to work with student-athletes to bring the practice of yoga and meditation into their lives. It also meant a move to Ontario for a couple of years—which came with the decision to close the doors of Polak’s retail stores as he embarked on a new professional adventure with RBC while Turner chased her dream.
But, as everyone from Nova Scotia knows, the call back to the East Coast is a strong one and the duo moved back to open their consulting firm. As an Indigenous person himself, Polak is able to offer first-hand experience and insight into Indigenous practices, while Turner is able to draw on her Bachelor of Arts in sociology as well as her perspectives and challenges as a Black woman in the business world. Avid changemakers, they have both worked in advisory roles over the years, raising awareness of Indigenous and Black communities as well as redeveloping policies with inclusion in mind.
“Being both European and Indigenous gave me a unique perspective,” says Polak. “Our lived experiences have played a significant role in molding our business.”
Akwekon—meaning “all of us”—uses tools such as storytelling, collaboration and truth sharing to elevate organizational leadership and governance as well as perspectives in innovation, design and communication. Their mission is to help others understand the dichotomy between common business practices and Indigenous business principles. Through this, Turner and Polak guide organizations and their leaders on how to solve complex problems by reconciling these two conflicting worldviews to arrive at unique solutions.
Keisha Turner BA’12
Michael Polak BComm’14
“People often don’t realize that we all have an Indigenous identity just by being Canadian,” says Polak. “Our communities need innovation but there hasn't been a tremendous amount of exposure to using processes and tools to innovate. There’s even less exposure to the traditional Indigenous teachings I was taught in my community, so combining these two things is the essence of what Akwekon is and has become.”
But make no mistake, Turner and Polak aren’t interested in a “quick-fix” approach when it comes to their collaboration with clients. They’re keen to work with businesses and organizations who are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to cultivate real change and understand how their practices and processes can be viewed and approached differently in a meaningful and impactful way.
“The action piece is so important to us,” says Turner. “We want corporate Canada and its leaders to understand that this is a long-term commitment to reconciliation, not just a surface level attempt.”
To solidify these commitments, Turner and Polak create a wampum with each of their clients—a traditional shell bead made by a member of the Indigenous community. It signifies “forever,” serving as a form of contract throughout their working partnership that keeps both parties accountable for their words and intentions.
The support and mutual admiration between these two business partners—who are also life partners on the cusp of their 10-year wedding anniversary—is nothing short of inspiring. Their eyes sparkle as they talk about moments along the way where the other has succeeded and thrived, never forgetting to mention an accolade or accomplishment, no matter how big or small. Both credit Saint Mary’s for being a place that not only helped shape their careers, but a place they can always return to.
“SMU’s always been a place where I feel at home,” Turner finishes with a smile.