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Lakehead University Magazine Spring/Summer 2004

Taking Aim

Karen Gavan and Corporate Success

By J. Andrew Deman

Karen Gavan has a lot of things going for her these days. Since graduating from Lakehead University in 1982, her rise to success in the corporate sector has been meteoric. The Chief Operating Officer of both Transamerica Life Canada and Aegon Funds Management Inc., Gavan is a noteworthy example of an ambitious and talented woman making it in the world of big business.

Gavan credits the Lakehead Business Administration program with providing her the necessary grounding in business operations that still serves her to this day: "I don't think going to an Ivy League school would have changed much for me at all. Maybe it would have given me a few more business contacts, I'll give them that, but you learn more by doing."

When dealing with the financial advisors who sell her firm's products across Canada, Gavan found an unforeseen advantage to an upbringing in Northwestern Ontario. "I think that you can see the polished, shined professional image that I need when I'm dealing with people on Bay Street, but then when they talk to me and find out about carving up moose-meat in the garage, and fishing, and all the rest, it makes me a more down-to-earth person in their eyes."

Throughout her life in Thunder Bay, and into her life in Toronto, Karen Gavan's rise to success is marked by a series of accelerated accomplishments. She completed high school by the age of 17. At Lakehead, she received her Honours Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1982. She was only 20 years old at the time. As a CA candidate, she opted to forego her study year, choosing instead to tackle the challenge of the uniform financial exams a full 12 months early.

Of her fast-track approach to education, Gavan remarks, "I was always good at studying just the right amount. I'm not a terribly patient person. If I want something, I go after it and get it."

After a series of accounting positions, Gavan got into finance. By the age of 29, she was recruited and hired by Transamerica Life as Chief Financial Officer where she has made her mark to this day.

"She is probably one of the most successful graduates of our faculty, in terms of the speed at which she has risen to the top," says Karen Gavan's brother, Lakehead University Business Administration Professor Ken Hartviksen. "Among females, given the 'glass ceiling' of those days, her success is pretty much unprecedented."

In regards to the so-called 'glass ceiling,' Gavan believes it's there. "I think there is a whole number of issues surrounding it. I know a lot of very successful women in business, but they are still few and far between at the senior executive level. The board positions aren't there."

This lack of gender equity in the boardroom leaves women with a smaller margin for error. As a result of this, Gavan explains, "There are probably a lot more men who are less deserving who manage to survive and thrive than women. Women very quickly get weeded out, and that's where I think the glass ceiling is. I think it's also that women make certain lifestyle decisions, because you do give up a lot in your personal life in order to be successful."

When it comes to sacrifice, she speaks from experience. "I've got two kids who have grown up with nannies, always knowing that Mom travels and works long hours. Sometimes you just can't be at one of the kids' events because it conflicts with a board meeting; they understand that it's just 'sorry, I've got to be at the board meeting."

Even physical injury can be added to the list of sacrifices on the path to success. Years ago, Gavan developed alopecia as a result of stress. She temporarily lost over half of her hair.

In 1999, an opportunity arose to get off of the fast-track. As Aegon acquired Transamerica, Gavan decided to leave  the company and take a position with an insurance firm for equal pay and far less responsibility. The move proved impossible.
"I felt like I had died. I couldn't do it. Seven months later, I came back here. I'm driven by the dynamic environment: always changing, always something to keep your mind going and growing. I've never looked back on that decision." As for the next generation of businesswomen, Gavan advises that "you have to be confident — project that you're confident, know your stuff, know it inside and out, be positive, and don't be afraid to also be a woman."
The journey has been marked by hard work, tough decisions, and personal sacrifice, but today Karen Gavan stands as a shining example of what a hard-working, intelligent businesswoman can accomplish within the corporate sector.

— J. Andrew Deman (HBA’01/MA’03) is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo

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