Classically trained ballerina. Business graduate. Child rights activist.
And social enterprise and innovation leader at Memorial University.
Nicole Helwig’s circuitous career path has provided her with a wealth of experiences and exposure to societal issues around the world, all of which perfectly positioned her to become Memorial’s first manager of the Centre for Social Enterprise (CSE) in 2016.
“When I read the job description, I had to just pause because it resonated with my background, with my experience and with my interests,” she said.
Early work ethic
Born and raised in St. John’s to a Philippines-born mother and a Jamaican-Canadian father, Ms. Helwig’s eventual career path began early with ballet lessons in the basement of her teacher’s home.
“My mother was interested in me having poise and grace. I hated wearing tights so it did not get off to a good start,” Helwig joked.
At the time, Russian-trained dancers were the epitome of the ballet world but, faced with the restrictions of living in the Communist country, some dancers defected to the West in hopes of greater opportunities and artistic freedom.
“My serious ballet training began under Nicole Nogaret, a dancer originally from France who was a principal ballerina in Prague. She brought something of the true Russian style that really appealed to me as a very shy, smallest in the class, child,” said Ms. Helwig. “There was a work ethic that was instilled very early.”
While in high school, Ms. Helwig moved to Montreal to continue her ballet training while simultaneously pursuing a bachelor of arts degree in humanistic studies from McGill University.
Bolshoi Theatre credentials
“It was really interesting times,” she said. “There were people coming to Canada from the Soviet Union and for two-and-a-half years I had the honour to study under ballet master Maxim Martirosian, who had been the artistic director at the Bolshoi Theatre Ballet School in Moscow for 14 years.”
As her exposure to the stars of Russian ballet continued, she also caught a glimpse of the darker side of life for economic and political refugees, including struggles with immigration and the risk of exploitation.
Ms. Helwig and her colleagues felt something had to change.
“We thought, ‘We’re going to lose these amazing people, this talent. The idea was, ‘How do we keep people here?’ Well, if we form our own space then we’ll be able to hire and keep people here.”
They formed an informal performing arts co-operative, later incorporated as a non-profit, called Ballet Divertimento de Montréal. Located in an old school building they adapted as a dance centre, Ballet Divertimento marked its 25th anniversary in Montreal last year.
Business with social mission
It was Ms. Helwig’s first exposure to starting a new business as well as to business with a social mission.
“We started with nothing. I remember one of our first meetings was held in a busy downtown food court. While getting space was a priority, I remember suggesting that instead of attracting students to us, we could send dance teachers out into community. The next thing I knew I was being handed a phone book to start making cold calls. It was an experience that joined creative entrepreneurship with a passion for dance.”
Ms. Helwig eventually moved to Europe where she completed her training in Paris and Budapest and performed throughout the continent.
Eventually, she decided to step away from the stage and pursue other opportunities. One of those was getting in on the ground floor of an emerging industry following the fall of the Iron Curtain.
“People were coming across the border [into Hungary] to have dental work done. It was high quality and high standards but lower prices. People started to see an opportunity,” she said.
As dental clinics sprung up along the Austro-Hungarian border, a new industry – dental tourism – was born. Ms. Helwig was hired by a local startup to set up services for clients in the United Kingdom and France.
“It appealed to the creative side of me. I enjoyed the building, I enjoyed the creating,” she said. “We had an idea and I was able to help bring that idea to life. And then when it started getting into the routine, the more typical day-to-day, I knew it was time to move on.”
Through her experience in that company, which is still active today, she also recognized her lack of business education.
“I was often wondering, could I be doing this better? What’s my blind spot that I just don’t know about because I haven’t had any business training?”
The call of Asia
Ms. Helwig left Hungary for Malaysia and a master of business administration (MBA) degree at the University of Strathclyde’s Malaysian International Centre in Kuala Lumpur.
Not content to focus exclusively on her studies, she also sought internship opportunities, engaging with non-governmental organizations, corporations and international agencies throughout Southeast Asia.
“Sustainability doesn’t come in isolation. It won’t be attained where political-economic-social injustice is not addressed.”
“I was feeling the call of Asia and had become interested in corporate social responsibility,” she said of the move. “I wanted to connect with that part of my life which I knew about but didn’t know about. I was glad to have my MBA in an Asian context. I came out a different person.”
Ms. Helwig also gained exposure to the United Nations and its various processes and committees through her non-academic work. During a secondment to a coalition on child rights, for example, she saw first-hand the issues faced by migrant workers and their families, including human trafficking, forced labour, child labour and statelessness.
“It was a unique experience to be studying for an MBA while working at the grassroots in the Southeast Asian NGO sector,” she said. “One of the most impactful experiences I had was engaging with a Malaysian NGO providing informal education to children of migrant workers on palm oil plantations. It helped me understand that sustainability doesn’t come in isolation. It won’t be attained where political-economic-social injustice is not addressed.”
Rich past, diverse present
In 2014, she returned to St. John’s where she and her daughter, Marifé, are now living in the same neighbourhood in which she grew up.
Soon after, Memorial began hiring for its new centre focused on supporting and growing social enterprise and social innovation in the province. The pan-university centre officially launched in 2017 as a joint initiative of the Faculty of Business Administration, School of Social Work and School of Music.
Ms. Helwig says being involved in the early days of the centre has been “a real privilege.”
“I returned to a province that has a rich past and diverse present of social enterprise and social innovation activity. I’m very cognizant that Memorial is doing so much already [in social innovation], and the centre helps shine a mirror on that. We have a lot to share with the rest of the world.”
Over the past two years, the CSE has helped build relationships with community groups, initiated student work terms in local social enterprises, held related events and been part of informing the provincial government’s new Social Enterprise Action Plan, launched in the spring of 2018.
“I can empathize knowing the stress and uncertainty but I can also champion this.”
The centre is also involved in curricula innovation and, perhaps most importantly, exposing students to the vast career opportunities available in the social enterprise sector.
“I think I have lived what many of our students will experience in their careers – having to redefine themselves as they work on different projects in different environments,” Ms. Helwig said. “It brings to life the meaning and importance of having transferable skills and also being a global, lifelong learning student. I can empathize knowing the stress and uncertainty, but I can also champion this.”
Changing the conversation
The evolving nature of the ecosystem allows her to still exercise her creative nature through developing the activities of the CSE and supporting innovative curriculum such as the new MBA in social enterprise and entrepreneurship.
“Creativity is innovation, and change is related to innovation. Change-making is about creating the change you want to see in the world,” she said.
“Things are changing very fast. We’re living in very challenging times. I am more and more intrigued by what it takes to thrive and succeed when working in different sectors and across sectors. A perspective that’s enriched by experiences in the arts, in social change and in questioning the role of business in society makes me cognizant that it’s not only about changing the conversation. It’s about changing how we have the conversation.”