Trillium Foundation’s CEO, Andrea Cohen Barrack inspires Fellows on diversity issues, leadership, tenacity

“Interrupt the status quo!”

Those are the words of the Ontario Trillium Foundation’s (OTF) CEO Andrea Cohen Barrack, that she shared at the Summer Social for the Fellows of the Diversity & Inclusion Fellowship. Held at William’s Landing in downtown Toronto, the event featured Cohen Barrack’s insights into leadership, growth and how tenacity helped her persevere through the many obstacles she faced along the way.

Cohen Barrack came to OTF after a lengthy and successful career in community healthcare, most recently as CEO of Unison Health and Community Services. A transformative leader, she has a demonstrated history of both developing strategies that promise positive change, and leading others to deliver on those promises. Cohen Barrack is also a long-time volunteer, serving as Chair of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Region, Advisory Board member for the Centre for Effective Philanthropy and Chair of the Dean’s Council for the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University.

She captivated and connected with a room of eager Fellows and Mentors with her candor. This November, the Fellows will be graduating at AFP’s Congress.Cohen Barrack’s words complimented the development tools we have gained within the fellowship, and well prepared us for the road ahead. Fellows nodded with agreement as she addressed real issues in the workplace and her personal like that have served as springboards for her success, including her experience as a teenage mom, and her honest comments on resolve and the importance of determination.


Tenacity and Diversity

The notable quote of the night for me was to “break the box ‘they’ put you in.” Cohen Barrack credits her success to her determination and persistence, even when it feels uncomfortable. She spoke about her candor-although contrary to popular belief – and how it helped her ask for what she wanted. She kept us laughing as she shared her stories of resolve. Her advice? “Don’t wait for something to come to you. Understand your value proposition, communicate and deliver on it. Your value proposition is what makes you unique.”

The central idea of leadership is to be able to understand other people’s experiences. Cohen Barrack spoke about how major societal changes have expanded our dynamic society and the need to recognize the role of diversity in this change. “I hope the next generation of leaders will not have the need to talk about diversity,” she said.

She credits and faults both women and men for mentoring and hurting her as a professional. She noted that historically women would not ask for promotions because of various barriers, but at the same time, she stressed that women need to take risks and put themselves out there.


The Fellowship provides a valuable mentorship catered to each Fellow’s needs assessment. Cohen Barrack spoke how finding the right fit is critical to a great mentorship. “Find [a mentor] who knows you and sees how you work,” she said. “They should push you and see you as you.”

What keeps her going?

Positive disposition, serendipity and timing.

Cohen Barrack doesn’t like structured plans or 10-year goals. Instead she relies on the fundamentals of having vision and passion. In doing so, she has been fortunate with great serendipity. “The opportunities that will come your way can be fluid and organic,” she said. “Consider the future instead of immediacy, that way you can adapt to changes in your life and gain leadership growth. Serendipity will happen for all of you, time and time again.”

Here is a roundup of the best advice Fellows received about networking:

  • Talk to everyone!
  • Never turn down an opportunity to network. You can turn it into a social activity.
  • People love talking about themselves, so don’t be shy!
  • Don’t try to meet everyone at a networking event, have meaningful connections. Remember it is quality, not quantity.
  • Ask questions. Listen more than you talk.
  • Take pictures with people if they’re willing. It will help you remember their names and give you a reason to contact them again.
  • Have fun and smile. Everyone wants to be around people who make them feel good.