Lindork’s Lists – Q&A #21: Shanika Abeysinghe
Note: this is the public version of my email newsletter Q&A that gets sent to paid subscriber inboxes first every other Sunday. You can get these Q&As in your inbox first by becoming a paid subscriber.
Originally published to newsletter subscribers on Jan 9, 2022
The twenty-first person I’m profiling in my newsletter subscriber Q&A series is:
Alberta Entrepreneur and Community Builder Shanika Abeysinghe
Getting to know Shanika Abeysinghe:
Shanika Abeysinghe is a 28-year-old, Calgary-based Advisor, Director, Entrepreneur, Content Creator and Community Builder. I first e-met Shanika when she introduced a business she founded, Bessie, to me. Bessie was a food box service that brings local, natural meat and fish directly to consumers—the idea was to help Albertans eat healthier in a more affordable way, while supporting local farmers and fisheries.
I soon realized that Shanika, in general, was a really smart person building a lot of cool things with other smart people, things that made an impact on our community.
In 2021, Shanika teamed up with other Alberta businesses to create EACH+EVERY, an organization that aims to reduce preventable overdose deaths and help build a more fair and compassionate community by adding the voice of businesses to accelerate drug policy reform. And now as an Advisor at Platform Calgary, she works with founders and startups to help accelerate their development, build the new economy and make Alberta the “go-to” place for tech. She also regularly uses her social media platforms to speak out against injustices and raise awareness for social issues. So, you can say she’s pretty interesting, and the work she does is as well.
Let’s Dive Into the Q&A with Shanika Abeysinghe:
Can you describe the work you do in your different roles?
At Bessie, we work with local farmers (and not so local fishermen) to connect them with local consumers. My day-to-day, I manage the marketing and customer success of the brand. I fell into Bessie! I was completely burnt out and lost after getting laid off from my old role as a communications specialist at a large non-profit and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I saw my friend and later co-founder, Spencer, posting things on LinkedIn about farms and food and I asked him to go for a beer. Instead, we met at his office, he pitched what Bessie was at the time, and I came onboard. That was more than two years ago and it’s been a wild ride ever since!
My current role is an Advisor at Platform Calgary. Having gone through the Junction program with Platform and later joining the team for the summer for the Student Advisory Program, it was the right place to land after Bessie. Every day, I get to work with founders and startups throughout the world to accelerate their development, build the new economy and make Alberta the “go-to” place for tech. What excites me about the role is that I get to share everything I learned scaling a startup from the ground up and hopefully, advising these founders along so they can build unicorn companies.
EACH+EVERY is the brainchild of a group of entrepreneurs spanning the entire province to help destigmatize drug use. The numbers are staggering: in Alberta alone 4 people are dying from drug poisoning. As business owners, we were tired of hearing in the media that other businesses wanted to close down safe consumption sites. So, we built an organization to make it very clear that there are businesses that want to do the best for their communities. We advocate for safe consumption sites, safe supply, actively participate in conversations with all levels of government about progressive drug policy, and, right now, we are working hard to educate the business community on naloxone. I am happy to share that more than 200 businesses across the country have joined us. To flip the narrative of safe consumption on its head, we dropped version 1 of our EACH+EVERY beer and will have a second one dropping early next year!
Can you talk about how you use social media for different advocacy efforts—I regularly see you posting anti-racist content, defunding police, uplifting women, diversity, etc. Why do you choose to use your platform to talk about these topics (and how has the response been, what do you hope comes out of raising awareness about these different issues?)
Ah this is a huge question. For context, I spent several years feeling incredibly lost about my voice. I cared about things but feared speaking publicly about anything because I didn’t want to be that person. I had far too many people diminish my voice and it got to a point where I believed them: that I was too much, that I shouldn’t care, that I should just work a 9-5 and that should be enough. When I stepped into Bessie, the issues I saw in tech were so pronounced that all I could think about was my younger self and the girls coming up behind me. What kind of world would they need to succeed? It’s one where we confront everything that isn’t working: capitalism, racism, sexism, colonization, white women feminism, and so much more. Once I realized that, using my platforms was a no brainer.
My response has been an interesting mix of support and blowback. Publicly, I gathered a bit of a following on Twitter when a white racist “journalist” took offence to one of my tweets, wrote an article about me, and sicced his followers on me. To put it bluntly: I was terrified. At the time, because of my role as a founder, so much of my personal information was in the hands of other people: I spoke to hundreds if not thousands of everyday people using my personal number. I spent hours panicking that I was going to be doxxed and that the safety of my staff was going to be put at risk because I was being told by faceless people that they hope I got raped, killed/murdered etc. However, a fellow Twitter user (@juststacey_) came to my rescue and rallied a new community around me.
Since then, I truly haven’t cared what happens to me because of what I am advocating for. But, I’ll be honest, it does piss me off when powerful people (whether they are leading startups or venture capital firms) ask my white male co-founders and colleagues to defend or explain what I am advocating for. It further shows the issues I am drawing attention to are continuing regardless of the work we are all doing.
Privately, it has an adjustment for my friends and family. My parents worry that it’s going to hurt my ability to get jobs in the future, my friend group has grown, and I have more people in more corners than ever before. Personally, social media platforms are a powerful way to connect and learn. The one thing I worry about though, is getting caught in an echo-chamber of people who share the same beliefs as me. I am not going to get it right 100% of the time but, I want to learn, to be challenged, to grow and to be better than I was before. Other than that, through advocacy I found freedom. I’m no longer chained to someone else’s idea of who I need to be or the box I need to fit in.
You are a community builder. Can you share a bit about that here—the different community building projects you’re involved in, as well as why you think investing in and building better communities is important?
Volunteerism is something that my parents taught me at a young age so any opportunity I’ve had to give my time to my community I have done. Over the last few years, I have been involved with the Fifth Reel, Opening Gaits Therapeutic Riding Society, the Famous 5 Foundation, Calgary International Film Festival, Canadian International Fashion Film Festival, Calgary Stampede, the University of Calgary, Okotoks Film Festival, the 51, a few political campaigns/organizations and more.
A project that has taken off and has been a surprise to most is Get Checkered, my podcast about Formula One. We’ve grown a little community of F1 fans who want to talk about the races but also want to explore the environmental, social, and political implications of the sport.
The way I see it, if we want to create change in our communities, we can’t wait for the government or other naysayers to get onboard. We just need to create action ourselves and work alongside people who are driven by the same vision and values. I am someone with incredible privilege and I have the ability to do something about the issues I see in the world, why wouldn’t I try?
Can you articulate why you do what you do?
This sounds weird but, I do think I was put here to be of service to others: I use communications (from talking to marketing tactics) to connect people with each other. Without that connection, the already lonely world will continue to be lonely.
Can you share a memorable moment or ‘successes’ in your career / life?
There are too many to count! Career-wise: the opening night of the Marda Loop Justice Film Festival when I was Executive Director, crashing events with a grocery cart to promote Bessie, getting the okay from Reuben and the Dark to use their song for a campaign video for the Calgary Drop In Centre.
With my personal life, it’s so much more about the simple things: dancing and singing along to my favourite bands at Sasquatch, watching my friends reach professional and personal milestones, traveling with my best friends for a wild 72- hour trip to New York City, the many adventures that happened in my 2007 Honda Civic.
None of the professional successes are even worth it if the people you love aren’t there for the ride.
Can you share a challenging moment, obstacles or failure in your career / life? And perhaps what you learned from it or how you overcame it?
Getting laid off was so challenging because I had tied my self worth into my job. But, I had worked two jobs for several years so I was financially able to take time for myself and not look for work right away. Instead, I went to therapy, mourned things from years before and cleared the skeletons in my closet. I went to a career coach who helped me figure out what I wanted to do next, but who also made me comfortable with taking risks. I even went to a nutritionist to help me meal plan and prep better.
I came out of those three months equipped with the right tools to help me succeed. More importantly, I genuinely loved myself again. I learned that asking for help is okay and change can lead to something great.
Can you share advice for others who might be interested in starting their own business, building community, or using their platforms to advocate for social issues?
Business: think about how you can test your theory without the big price tag and talk to your potential clients/customers all the time. Be coachable. Know your strengths, weaknesses, and what you really don’t enjoy doing and then surround yourself with people who are better than you in those areas. Be humble and curious.
Community: lean into your interests! It’s easy to build where you like to spend time.
Using social or other platforms: Be open to getting things wrong and learning. Also, do what you need to do to protect your mental and physical health and safety.
Can you tell me about your hobbies! What do you do for fun?
I like working out. A lot. I never thought I would be that person but, I am. I also enjoy golfing…I have fully become a white man over the last 2 years. I really enjoy cooking! I also love travelling and can’t wait to get back on a plane.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work professionally, personally, or anything that I’ve missed that you’d like mentioned?
Nothing! I hope I am relatable though. I have had privilege in many ways: no student debt, financial support and more. I want people to feel like they don’t need to fit into a box.
Wrapping up our Q&A:
What show would you recommend people watch on Netflix (or other streaming services) and why?
Is there a book or podcast you recently read (or doesn’t have to be recent) that you would recommend to others and why?
What is one of your favourite restaurants or stores you’d recommend in Edmonton?
What’s something about Alberta you love or recommend others check out?
Head to the breweries in Inglewood (Calgary) and do your own brewery tour! Go to Rosebud, Alberta and see everything. It feels like a real life Stars Hollow. Banff is endlessly fun and a place I go back to every year.
Thank you Shanika for sharing your story!
You can connect with Shanika on:
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