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Evelyn Ackah: ‘You have to shift, you have to pivot’

The Globe and Mail with Evelyn Ackah 24 June 2019

Evelyn Ackah is founder of Ackah Business Immigration Law in Calgary.

We moved to Canada (from Ghana) when I was five. I remember salad on my plate on the plane and thought, “I’m not a goat, why are they giving me an uncooked vegetable?”

My dad said: “We came to Canada because you were born and I needed to do better for you.” My sister and I are both lawyers. Our sense was we had to do better for them. That was the deal.

I met a judge in Vancouver through work I was doing in the black community in Vancouver. He took me for lunch and starting talking about law.

I was working in organizational development but thought law would give me added credibility.

I worked at the refugee clinic through (University of British Columbia) law school. I’d see a client and they would be deported the next day. It’s very shocking and I thought this is too much emotional work for me and too stressful.

I became a corporate lawyer (in Toronto) but I wasn’t loving it because as a junior lawyer you don’t have any client contact.

I joined an accounting firm that was developing a law practice and I got to learn about the corporate side of the business.

You get to know the individuals in business immigration law; it was so personal, but at the same time arms length. There was nobody whose life was at stake because they didn’t get that visa and going back home to who knows what? I could sleep at night.

Being a woman of colour was a challenge. I had so many instances where I was wearing a Holt Renfrew suit and still someone assumes you are an assistant or you walk into the board room and people ask you to get a coffee. They were never expecting me.

When you are a visible minority, it’s even more important to be visually polished. Presentation, of course, is not everything. You still have to know what you are talking about. However, there is a real expectation that you need to reflect externally what you are bringing to the table.

For articling students, I give the same advice. It’s better to have one great suit than a whole bunch of not-so-great suits.

I made partner (in Toronto) but then it wasn’t that important to me. I knew I couldn’t work 18 hours a day for the rest of my life six days a week and be the parent I wanted to be.

I never thought I’d live in Alberta; I’m a West Coast girl. I’d come out every month to do business. I’d love that people in Alberta shake a hand on the corner and make a deal. There wasn’t that beauty contest as Bay Street is known for where it would take a year and a half to find out if you got that RFP. I felt I could do business here and I didn’t feel limited. It was a great opportunity to get closer to my family in Vancouver.

I went out on my own in 2010, then adopted my kids the next year.

We usually work for companies who want to move people. If it’s a new client and we need to understand their business, sometimes I will go to the office or to the plant. Because we need to describe – in the most transparent way – it to the immigration officers.

We had our best year and then we had our worst year (in 2016) and I’m like, “Oh my God. Now we’re living that recession.” My father had passed away and I really struggled with grief and running a business and not really having that much time to process because there was a business to keep afloat.

I didn’t want to give up. You have to shift, you have to pivot. We focused on online marketing and putting myself out there as the face of the firm. It’s was, “Okay, like how can we get creative?” Just talking with clients and saying: “What do you think we could do?”

We started some employment law. We looked at employment policies from the U.S. for companies coming to Canada or helped companies with going south. I ended up being counsel to two different law firms.

It’s been an interesting few years in Calgary. It feels like now the companies are starting to recruit more again.

We are still bringing in highly skilled workers. Everything from science to PhD level academics, medicine. People who are hard to find.

I love the arts and do some pro bono work for arts organizations and want to expose my kids to the arts.

My sister and I still support our family. That’s the lesson of immigration: You leave the country, but it never leaves you.