Chandra Kavanagh

Chandra Kavanagh is the CEO and Founder of Adapt Mentorship. Adapt Mentorship is a revolutionary mentorship customization service that provides organizations with the structure and resources they need to run a successful and enriching mentorship program for their members.

Chandra is also a PhD candidate at McMaster University, where she studies biomedical ethics and feminist philosophy. Chandra’s workshops have received high acclaim across Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia and she has been widely published in both academic and popular media.

An award-winning feminist and labour activist, Chandra received the 2016 Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario “Sisters in Solidarity” award for her work on gender issues in her role as president of CUPE Local 3906. She served as the Feminist-in-Residence for the St. John’s Status of Women Council in 2017, and was nominated for the YWCA Young Women of Distinction Award in 2018.

Currently, she is putting her biomedical background to good use serving as the ethics officer for the NL Health Research Ethics Authority. In this position she protects the people of our province by overseeing all of the health research that happens in Newfoundland and Labrador.

How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your degree?

Like a lot of young Newfoundlanders I decided to go to Memorial for practical reasons. The university has an excellent national reputation, it is close to family, and inexpensive. I was fortunate that it also became a home for my ideas, putting me in touch with people who still influence me today.

What drew you to do a degree in philosophy?

Philosophy was the only thing I was good at. I had a professor at Memorial, Dr. Antoinette Staford a brilliant woman who has since retired, and she always said that people who pursued philosophy did so because “they could not do otherwise.” I always felt that way about philosophy. I was always drawn to the tough ethical questions. Philosophy was a discipline that gave me the opportunity to try and find answers to those questions.

Do any particular memories stand out from your time here as an undergraduate/graduate student?

Many of the memories that stand out the most for me revolve around my time as the President of the Memorial undergraduate philosophy society. There was an amazing group of students affiliated with the department at that time. Conversing and socializing with those people resulted in some of the most interesting and challenging philosophical experiences I’ve had to date. Serving as president also gave me the opportunity to develop my leadership skills. These skills have continued to serve me well throughout my university and professional career.

If you could do any course over again, what would it be?

Seamus O’Neill’s Intro to Philosophy, hands down. His class was the first time I heard the ethical questions I had wondered about put into such clear terms. Categories like utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics offered me frameworks to think about the injustices in the world that bothered me so much. A lot of ideas opened up to at that time because of the subject matter, the professor, the students, and the environment of inquiry fostered at Memorial.

I understand that since receiving your undergraduate from Memorial you have completed a Masters and are about to graduate with a PhD.
What is it about philosophy that has kept you engaged throughout the years of study?

Just like many relationships, my relationship with philosophy and academic achievement waxes and wanes. Often I feel truly passionate about my research and it is endlessly evident to me how crucial and worthwhile the process of researching and the products of research can be. On the other hand, sometimes I have to force myself to work because I’m so frustrated by seemingly intractable problems. I think what has really kept me going, and continues to keep me going, is an authentic interest in the content of my work. Ethical questions fascinate me. I think they are important. When you do work that you know is important, then you feel compelled to keep going even when you’d rather quit.

Your business Adapt Mentorship creates customized mentorship programs for local organizations. How did your entrepreneurial spark get lit and where did the idea originally come from?

My business really started by accident. In 2017 I was honored to serve as the Feminist-in-Residence for the St. John’s Status of Women Council. I fostered several projects while I was there, and one of them was a women’s mentorship program. The program was unique in a couple of ways. It was only six weeks of meetings, a 16-hour total time commitment. It paired adults and adults rather than adults and youth. And it focused on relationship building, and holistic self-improvement for both parties. The program was a wild success and the participants kept coming to me saying “my job needs something like this”, “my union needs this”, “my school needs this”. Adapt began to grow from there.

What was your biggest challenge in getting your business up and running?

Budgeting my time! I have a career I love, I’m finishing my PhD dissertation, and I’m on the board of directors of an amazing knowledge mobilization start-up non-profit called The Collaborative. I also have a loving partner, large family, and a cat that needs cuddles; so to make room for a business has been a challenge!

Why is mentorship so important?

We live in a world that is more and less connected than ever. Studies show we have fewer meaningful friends, family and community connections than we have at any other time in history. At the same time online and social media connectivity is keeping us in contact, but it also fosters feelings of jealousy, depression and isolation. Engaging with a mentor provides a brand-new in-person relationship that can help you build your community and truly enrich your life. Mentorship does not just improve your career and your bank account, it improves your social life, your health, and your level of happiness as well.

What’s a typical day like for you and how does your role as CEO of Adapt Mentorship coincide with your day job as ethics officer for the NL Health Research Ethics Authority?

There is no typical day in my role as the CEO for Adapt! My work involves everything from updating social media, to contract negotiations with clients, to program development, and building relationships with fellow entrepreneurs. In lots of ways my Adapt Mentorship work is very separate from my work with the HREA. The HREA is my full-time day job, and an expression of my passion for ethics. Adapt Mentorship is my full-time evening and weekend job, and an expression of my passion for relationship-building and organizational improvement. However, the skills I use for running Adapt, skills like motivating people, building healthy teams, and leadership, all play a big role in my day job with the HREA.

How did your arts/HSS degree prepare you for life as an entrepreneur?

Transferable skills is such a buzz-term these days that I almost hate to use it, but a humanities degree, much like an arts or social sciences degree, provides the student with so many transferable skills. More and more businesses and organizations are not looking for experts in their respective fields; they are looking for people who can lead, people who can learn, and people who can think outside the box. Arts and HSS degrees provide you with these capacities. On the more practical side, organizations are looking for someone who can write a well-crafted, error-free email, give a persuasive presentation, and navigate bureaucratic systems. These are also skills built by arts, social science, and humanities degrees.

What in your opinion is something the province of NL can do right now to improve the situation for entrepreneurs?

One of the areas that we could improve in this province is access to information. We have amazing and helpful people working in this sector. When I had questions about incorporation, for example, the Deputy Registrar at the Commercial Registrations Division of Service NL provided me with detailed communication describing every step of the incorporation and registration process. However, it took a great deal of research for me to figure out where to go and who to ask before I could get that information. Providing resources to help make information more accessible to entrepreneurs would remove some of the barriers to starting a small business.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

When it comes to Adapt I believe the sky is the limit in the next five years. So many organizations see the value of having a structured mentorship programs, and just need a helping hand to get those programs running. In terms of my other goals I’ll be Dr. Kavanagh in the next year, which will be the culmination of a lot of hard work. And I hope I will have made a meaningful contribution to research ethics in our province as ethics officer for the HREA.

What do you say to those who question the value of an arts degree?

Trust me, as a philosophy student a lot of people have questioned me about the value of my degree, friends, family, new acquaintances, taxi drivers, everyone you could imagine. “Philosophy degree, what are you going to do with that?” has been a constant refrain in my life since I started my studies. For the people who question the value of arts degrees I say, examine your lens. People often know about their own career-path, their own field, their own discipline, but not about others. If I had never gone into ethics I would have never known that jobs in ethical regulatory compliance, ethical counseling, ethical consultation, and medical ethics existed. We grow up believing there are 5 or 10 jobs in the world, doctor, lawyer, teacher, movie star, and whatever it is our parents do. What education does is open up possibilities for new careers, and new ways forward in our lives. I think the arts opens up those kind of possibilities in unprecedented ways.

What would people be most surprised to learn about you?

I have a deep affinity for what I call the “nightclub arts” especially drag and burlesque. I haven’t had as much time for those interests lately, but my 30th birthday is coming up and I’d love to plan a party with some local talent to help me celebrate!

What advice would you give a student who is unsure of what to study?

Don’t let fear, your own fear or someone else’s fear, make that decision for you. During my time as a university instructor, I noticed that many students were making their choices based on a fear of failure. They were afraid to fail as an artist, or novelist, or journalist so they go into something that seems more secure like nursing, engineering, or other fields that appear to be more directly applicable to the workforce. They went into these areas of study not because they had an interest but because they, or their parents, felt it was the safe option. What students seem to forget is that you can fail just as easily doing something you don’t like to do, so you might as well pursue what you love.

What’s your favourite place to visit?

Any place I haven’t been to before! I recently returned from an incredibly inspiring multi-country trip. I was offered an excellent opportunity to do some work at the Center for Agency, Values and Ethics in Sydney, Australia. I decided to make the most of the trip so I visited Spain, Italy, Austria, Slovakia and Germany before arriving in Sydney, and then travelled to Japan on my way home to Canada. Of all of those countries Japan was perhaps the most magical. We were lucky enough to arrive just in time for an early cherry blossom season; it was a once in a lifetime experience!

What are you reading and listening to these days?

I’m always reading bioethics, especially as I work on finishing up my dissertation. In Sydney my supervisor at the Center for Agency, Values and Ethics introduced me to Hilde Lindemann Nelson’s 1998 book Stories and Their Limits: Narrative Approaches to Bioethics. I’ve also been listening to a lot of NPR. My partner and I are both busy people and sometimes it feels like we don’t see enough of each other, so we carve out time in the morning to have a hot breakfast together and listen to the news.

What are you most looking forward to within the next year?

Adapt Mentorship has three mentorship programs launching this year. I could not be more excited to see these programs get their start, and have the opportunity to watch what they grow into.