Category Archives: Gals with Grit

Small Business, Big Dreams

Her first flight took her 13,400 kilometres away from her home in Chennai ten months after her wedding day. Selvi Thambimuthu landed at Lester B. Pearson International Airport, Toronto on December 4, 2004.

Three Generations

“I felt really happy to see my new husband and new country but also a little bit sad leaving my family back in Chennai. I was also very curious about snow,” she recalls.

Now thirteen+ years later, Selvi and Siva, her husband, and their three handsome sons Pragadheesh (12), Harshan (10), and Vadhanan (8), are busy getting ready to open their second restaurant franchise next week in Toronto – “Starving Artist”!

Stars Align – A Love Story

A match made by both our parents and confirmed by 4 different astrologists, Selvi and Siva were married within eighteen days of meeting one another in person for the first time in 2004. They came to know one another long distance by phone and her first thought was “he looks just like his photograph”. Strong faith in family and even stronger faith in dreams bridged the distance then and now.

Living the Dream

“Work for your dreams. It will happen whatever you dream. It will come true. You need to believe.” she repeats to her sons. “I want my sons to have their own dreams and I will support them as my parents always supported me. Education is important, first and foremost!”

She remembers how her parents set her up for success, always reading, exploring, and fuelling her curiosity about the world. At age 12, her father gave her a black radio and brought the world inside their home each night at dinnertime.

Her earliest memory of Toronto was “Everyone on the subway was reading!” She used to buy “packages of books” for her sons and read Dr. Seuss’ favourites including “Cat in the Hat” twenty to thirty times a day.

Entrepreneurship & Education in Progress

It’s not clear if “Green Eggs and Ham” set the tone as Selvi and Siva bought their first waffle restaurant franchise in 2016 and opened “Starving Artist” in Midtown Toronto. It was also the year Selvi started (and now graduated!) George Brown College’s Office Administration – Health Services two-year diploma program. And 2016 was the year Selvi’s Mom came from Chennai to help them realize their dreams.

The entrepreneurial spirit thrives in their family. Her father once owned a machine shop in Chennai. And as all entrepreneurs know, you do what it takes to make things work so they live above their restaurant which makes a whole lot of logistical sense.

Soccer Dreams

Listening to Pragadheesh talk about his passion, soccer, with his eyes shining brightly, he is like most young first generation Canadians. They are strivers, strong-willed with extraordinary grit and determination.

When his father suggested they should book their tickets for the World Cup 2026 (Canada, U.S. and Mexico will be hosting), Pragadheesh reassured his father, “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll be playing so I’ll have tickets for everyone.”

The Next Big Dream

And what’s next you might wonder from the lady who once pushed a stroller dubbed “The Rocket” by her co-workers to get her son to school on time?

Selvi now dreams about how she will furnish their next house, a much bigger house as their home as she remembers fondly her childhood home in Chennai, 10’ x 50’, where her dreams began. And now 13,400 kms away, I have no doubt this dream will also come true. Small business, big dreams!

We Women

“It’s not like you always recall your Dad cooking for you!” – Chef Victoria Blamey, originally from Santiago, Chile, now NYC.

I sat up a little straighter in my seat as I listened and watched the women chefs in Maya Gallus’ “The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution” last Friday at Hot Docs  Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto. One by one they shared their years of dedication in pursuing and perfecting their art.

But I wondered who are they? Why don’t I remember their names like I remember the male chefs? Blame it on the media, PR, the male chefs? Or us, we women?

Women have been cooking forever. Women have been the ones that have been cooking for the chef or the man that became the chef. Usually it’s like my mom used to make this for me so ok …Women have been cooking all this time but you can’t make it to the professional side? That’s the irony of this, you know what I mean?”Chef Victoria Blamey, ready for her next adventure after Chumley’s, NYC.

“There’s a saying. Men cook for glory. Women cook for love … but as a chef, you really want to be judged on your work. Your gender has nothing to do with it.”Chef Anita Lo, 2nd generation Malaysian American, Annisa, NYC.

“I’m a chef. I don’t really attach importance to the fact woman or male chefs. We are all chefs.”Chef Anne-Sophie Pic, known for her 3 Michelin star restaurant, Maison Pic, SE France.

“I always say I wasn’t harassed because I was a woman. I was harassed because I was a human and chefs are equal opportunity ass-holes. They’ll harass anyone they see who’s weaker than them.” – Chef Amanda Cohen, owner, award-winning vegetable restaurant, Dirt Candy, NYC.

I won’t forget them now.

In NBA player San Antonio Spurs’ power forward/centre, Paul Gasol’s recent open letter about working with female coaches like Coach Becky Hammon, he sees no difference in coaching.

Growing up near Barcelona, Gasol’s father is a nurse and his mother is a doctor. “In 37 years, I can honestly say I’ve never once thought of my mom as a “female” doctor. To me, she has always just been … a doctor. And a great one, too.”

So why are we women still be pushing that same rock up the mountain forty years later? Maybe it’s time to put that rock down and just build our own damn mountain. What we need is a voice, a more united voice, a louder voice. Maya Gallus used her voice. Pau Gasol used his voice. Now is the time. Find ways to use your voice – blog, tweet, speak, share, educate, discuss. We need to care, we should care, do we care?

Wanted: New World Leaders

“Mom, when I grow up, I want to be the leader of the world,” says her four-year old daughter. “And we’ll be her advisors!”, chimed in her two older brothers. “Why not?” encouraged their mom, Tammara.

Indeed, why not? “Out of the mouths of babes” just in time to honour our moms today. Who are our young sages? Tierra (4), Kai (7), Kian (10) are our strivers and our future. They are Canadians who make us proud to be Canadian!

Tammara is one of our #Gals with Grit, a new movement launched this year on International Women’s Day to recognize newcomer professionals who are parents. We share their stories to inspire new newcomers and also leave a legacy for the next generation. You will know them as parents working sometimes at 2 jobs or running their own business while studying, or recently graduated post-secondary in Canada. They are remarkable people, everyday heroes, leaders in their communities, and also potential leaders on the world stage (if not already) as Tierra, our four-year old protégé exclaimed earlier.

We met four years ago while chatting at Eglinton Station waiting for the next train during rush hour. By then Tammara had already been to Canada, twice, the first time at age 6 years when her father did his Masters degree in Environmental Engineering at the University of Manitoba and again at 17 as a York University student. A couple of weeks later I was invited to her home for a very fine and full Indonesian lunch and met her young family – her husband and their two young sons. The “world leader” had not yet arrived. In complete awe of her amazing ability to do it all (studying for her PhD, working full-time, caring for her young family), I wondered who she really was and how she developed this remarkable fortitude, grit as we call it.

Fast forward four years, now a mom of three, with her PhD in Urban Planning, and also a Trudeau scholar, Tammara agreed to participate in our “Gals with Grit” project. Earlier this month, in our first interview, I asked her to describe for us her journey so far:

Tammara, can you please share with us some defining moments and who has made an impact in your life?

“When I was 13 years old, my parents sent me to visit my Great Aunt Irid, my maternal grandmother’s little sister. She is an accomplished public speaker. You see, I was very shy and was absolutely terrified to look her and anyone else for that matter, in the eye. My eyes were always downcast and I kept covering my face with my hands. When I was young, I was bullied and was very self conscious about my appearance, in particular, my weight. I believed someone was always judging me for one thing or another. Those few days with Great Aunt Irid helped me put my hands down and lift my head up and keep my eyes straight ahead, steady and confident.

Then my mother got a job in Winston-Salem, North Carolina so we all moved. This is where the biggest change happened in my life. I was 15 at the time.  My amazing American teachers were creative, innovative, and encouraging, which was different from the learning by rote which I was used to doing in Indonesia. I was very polite and was keen to learn, so my teachers helped me thrive and believed in me. I won the “Student of the Year” two years in a row!

I hope to inspire my students at the University of Toronto to believe in their potential,  just like my teachers inspired me.

What’s on the radar for you these days?

I wore a hijab on and off after I came to Canada. However, I decided to finally wear my head covering permanently a year after I became a Trudeau scholar in 2014. I felt more confident and less concerned about having to look a certain way to gain approval from others so my hijab felt empowering to me as a scholar. It also often sparks conversation and learning opportunities about the role of Muslim women in academia.  Now as an expert in my field, I sit at the table with CEOs and Ministers and I realized that I have opportunities to make a difference.

We need to dispel the stereotypes found in Orientalism and its monolithic framing of diverse Muslim cultures  as “ancient”, primarily middle-eastern, and “backward.” As a mother, a muslim and working professional,  I believe it is important for me to maintain a balance between the academic and spiritual aspects of my life so that my children continue to believe that women leaders are not unusual. There is no doubt in my children’s minds that a woman could indeed become world leaders.

Well, I know one four-year old who already has her eye on the job! Thanks, Tammara, for sharing your story and being a true “Gal with Grit”. Happy Mother’s Day to you and all Moms around the world!