To recognize women’s achievements, AAJ Magazine is spotlighting leading women in our community who have made a positive difference for others.
Karen (Johal) Dosanjh was born in Vancouver, B.C. and grew up in the close-knit Richmond community as a tenacious and highly inquisitive girl. As the youngest of five kids, Karen remembers growing up in a loving and supportive household where perseverance, hard work, and giving back to those in need were cornerstones of their family values.
Karen recalls being lovingly teased by some family members that she was supposed to be a “boy” as there were many girls in the family. She laughs and says that she never took offense to the gentle ribbing but always knew that she would have to work a little harder to stand out and to succeed on her own terms.
And that she has. This year marks a full circle moment as Karen is named a Shakti Award recipient in the Professional Achievement category for exemplary leadership in her profession, and for her contributions to women’s and children’s issues.
A Distinguished Career
Throughout her 25-year career, Karen Dosanjh has built an esteemed reputation as a global leader in marketing, communications & public relations for some of the world’s leading corporations. Karen has steadily risen through the ranks to serve as the Vice-President, Marketing & Communications, at OSI Digital, a global provider of business and technology solutions. In this leadership role, Karen oversees the global marketing strategy to elevate the company’s brand awareness and drive business growth in the market.
Prior to this role, as Director of Innovation, Global Brand at GE Digital, Karen oversaw the brand integration strategies for GE Digital’s acquisition companies and helped drive the company’s digital industrial transformation narrative. (Karen is pictured above taking the stage alongside GE’s former CEO, Jeff Immelt. GE is A Fortune 500 company, has been in operation for over 125 years and stands as one of the largest companies in the world.)
Prior to joining GE, Karen led the Marketing & Communications function for Bit Stew Systems, a Canadian tech start-up, which was acquired by GE in November 2016. At Bit Stew, Karen was instrumental in establishing and building the marketing communications team and infrastructure from the ground up. This was the second time in her career that Karen has led the marketing and communications efforts for a technology start-up that was successfully acquired by a major corporation. The first being ISM-BC which was acquired by TELUS in 2000, and where Karen continued a successful, 15-year career in a variety of senior communications roles within the company including leading communications for TELUS’ Technology Strategy business unit and their national Corporate Social Responsibility program to name a few.
Lessons from the Past: A Grounding In Humility & Grit
When asked about where her ambition and drive originates from, Karen quickly credits her parents and their difficult journey of trying to build a new life for their family while adapting to a new country and culture after moving from India to Canada. Karen comes from a South Asian pioneer family as one of her forefathers, Gian Singh Johal was among the first Sikh men to immigrate to Canada in 1906, helped establish Khalsa Diwan Society in Canada and helped build the first Sikh temple in North America at 2nd Avenue in Vancouver. (See Gian Singh Johal’s story.) Karen’s Dad, the Late Gurdev Singh Johal, was sponsored by Gian Singh and immigrated to Canada in 1959, at the young age of 24.
“My Dad had a lot resting on his young shoulders. He often shared stories of adversity and hardship in those early days working labour jobs in the local saw mills in cold and rainy Vancouver with little or no community to lean on.” Not only was he separated from his family back home in India for many years, it was also his duty to work to support them financially and eventually help bring his loved ones home to Canada. Karen adds, “Growing up, Dad made it clear that these sacrifices were made to provide a better life for us. This is something that I never took for granted and often share with our own sons.”
Karen’s Mom, Harbans Kaur Johal, now 86, spent over 20 years at BC Packers as a fish cannery worker along with multiple other jobs to support her family. Harbans Kaur had big dreams and hopes of buying a farm property and eventually running their own successful farming operation. “Mom was a pioneer in her own right and she was a risk-taker always pushing our family to strive outside of our comfort zones to achieve more than we could have imagined. She’s inspired me in many ways and has taught me that in order to progress, you sometimes need to take calculated risks and then prepare to roll up your sleeves and do the work.
Karen adds, “My parents blue collar work ethic has always stayed with me and grounded me.”
Dosanjh Family Shares a Teachable Moment with Students
Karen believes there are many valuable lessons to be learned by today’s youth about the challenges and resiliency of our early settlers and true ground breakers in the South Asian community. This Spring, as part of Sikh Heritage Month, Karen and her in-laws, Sarjeet Singh Dosanjh and Gurdev Kaur Dosanjh will share the Dosanjh family pioneer journey with inner-city schools in Surrey. (See Narain Singh and Maha Kaur Dosanjh’s story)
“It’s a teachable moment for the future generation. I am so proud that my parents have the opportunity to share the Dosanjh family’s rich history with students as there is so much to be learned about their arduous journey and the valuable contributions they made along the way,” says Karen. “Their generosity, humility and dedication to community continues to inspire many.”
When asked what she’s learned from her parents’ experience as South Asian pioneers, Karen says, “Each one of them has taught us the true meaning of “seva” through their selfless actions. Seva is not just about preparing or serving food in the Gudwara. It goes beyond that. It’s also about authentically being of service to others without any expectation of return.”
She adds, “They also taught us that achieving success for yourself is not simply not enough. For those who have been given opportunities, much is expected. Extending your hand to lift others up with you, is by far the greatest gift we can learn from our past. These principles are still relevant today and we need this in our community more than ever.”
“For those who have been given opportunities, much is expected. Extending your hand to lift others up with you, is by far the greatest gift we can learn from our past.”
Helping Other Women Rise Too
When Karen first joined the tech industry in the late 90s she quickly realized there weren’t a lot of people who looked like her at the table. She was one of a few women working in the male-dominated tech space and there was certainly a greater need for more diversity in the workplace.
“In the past, I experienced various forms of conscious and unconscious bias and I knew that I had a duty to help advance diversity, equity and inclusiveness in the workplaces of the future,” says Karen. Now an influencer in the B.C. technology sector, Karen has been instrumental in creating opportunities to hold the door open for other women to follow her lead. Although the industry has seen improvements, today less than 24 per cent of the B.C. tech industry is represented by women, according to the BC Tech Association.
Karen adds, “We simply cannot aspire to be something we cannot see and this is why we need to shine the light on women rising in their respective industries so we can inspire other women to come join us. There’s room for all of us.”Karen strongly believes that by creating awareness about women’s issues, we will continue to change the narrative to empower women and girls to thrive in the business community. Throughout her career, she has actively advocated for women in technology and business by leading various initiatives. In May 2017, Karen established and led the first ever GE Women’s Network in B.C. with the mandate of helping women rise in the Canadian technology sector. Today, Karen volunteers her time as a mentor as part of Young Women in Business (YWiB) Blue Chip Mentorship Program to share her career learnings with up and comers in business. Karen is also a regular guest lecturer at SFU’s Beedie School of Business sharing her learnings with students on the topic of Leadership & Influence in the Global Workplace.
Karen strongly encourages young professional women to be more purpose-driven by focusing on the issues they care most about and those causes that closely align with their personal values. Karen says, “When you use your own voice to drive positive social changes for the betterment of others, that’s where true meaning lies.”
It All Starts At Home
Today, Karen and her husband Dr. Darsh Dosanjh are busy raising two articulate and grounded teenage boys in South Surrey, B.C. Karen is honest about the struggles working moms face trying to manage busy careers, raise children, keep up with family obligations and community service. Karen says, “There were times as a young mother where I felt that the pressure was too high and I would need to make a choice – do I want to be a good mother or do I want to be a good professional? I don’t believe that as women, we should have to make that choice as we are more than capable of mastering both worlds and then some.”
When asked what has been the key to her success, Karen says, “For me, knowing who I am and what I stand for, has helped me clearly set my goals and my intentions. I am them able to purposefully focus on what matters most and to say no to the things that don’t align with my core values.”
Karen states that success is not built alone and as women, we need to have a strong support system at home. She says, “My husband Darsh is my biggest advocate and it’s his steadfast support on the home front that truly inspires everything I am able to do. He motivates and encourages my personal and professional growth which is so important.”
In closing Karen says, “Empowered women have a duty to help empower other women. Inevitably when women within a community rise, the entire community benefits from their success.”
“Empowered women have a duty to help empower other women. Inevitably when women within a community rise, the entire community benefits from their success.” – Karen Dosanjh