Interview: Joanne Sallay (Toronto IV Chapter)

Born entrepreneur wins with WPO

When Joanne Sallay was a teenager, she started a successful ice cream business at high school. It was, she jokes, one of her first entrepreneurial ventures. Now, she is president and CEO of a company that represents more than 500 people.

Twelve years ago, Joanne switched from commercial banking to managing Teachers on Call, which offers one-on-one in-person and online tutoring by professional certified teachers for Canadian students from kindergarten to Grade 12, who are experiencing learning difficulties or striving to achieve academic excellence. The business was started by her mother, Rhona Sallay, in 1984.

“I think it’s really special. One of my former colleagues once said we often see businesses passed from father to son, or even from father to daughter, but it’s rare to see a business passed from mother to daughter. That stuck with me. I learned so much from my mother. I sometimes say I went to the Rhona Sallay School of Education.”

Joanne is also a member of one of the Women Presidents Organization’s (WPO's) chapters in Toronto, Canada, which she describes as crammed with “fierce” business leaders from whom she has received “a lot of authentic, meaningful advice”.

The WPO has more than 2,000 members across Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru, Spain, the United Kingdom, South Africa and Turkey.

WPO membership offered Joanne timely advice when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, and her company – Teachers on Call – had to quickly switch to online-only, almost overnight, from a face-to-face tutoring model, amid Canada’s strict lockdown.

“My business could have gone extinct. The WPO chair at our meeting said, ‘You don’t have a day to lose, you have to make changes.’ … The WPO was an incredible resource at that time, of solace and strength.”

Since taking over Teachers on Call, Joanne has professionalized what was a small business, investing in technology and adding full processes and protocols. Now, she wants to expand the company’s operations further across Canada.

What better proof of her business savvy than being listed as one of 2023 Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Award Winners in the entrepreneurship category. Also, Joanne was one of nine Canadian women selected for the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women North America Class of 2022. It was an award program she almost didn’t enter.

“WPO has encouraged me to do things out of my comfort zone. It was Tiki Cheung, one of my best WPO friends, who encouraged me to apply.”

When Joanne first heard of WPO, her business was too small for her to qualify for membership – candidates’ businesses must reach $ 1 million in gross annual sales for service-based businesses and $ 2 million in gross annual sales for product-based businesses.

“I worked hard, and eventually, I qualified for membership. The benefits have been immense. It is such a trusted forum, a safe space, so that means a lot to me,” she says.

Joanne is also a dedicated volunteer, who chairs the Corsage Project. This non-profit program sponsors financially deserving high schoolers’ full prom experience; works with the Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada to award university and college scholarships to low-income top achievers; and sponsors a graduation lunch for the Native Learning Centre, an alternative high school in Toronto for Indigenous students that integrates traditional cultural teachings into the day-to-day learning environment.

In fact, Joanne has received Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee and Platinum Jubilee medals for helping thousands of students celebrate the milestone of high school graduation with pride and in style.

Joanne began her entrepreneurship in education when she was a student herself. She co-founded the Queen’s Leadership Excellence and Development Conference (QLEAD) at Queen’s University after attending a summer program in high school through SHAD Canada at the University of New Brunswick, intended to give teenagers a glimpse of what post-secondary education entails.

“I’m really proud of that,” she says. “I’m no longer directly involved, but it has become more and more successful every year.”

The WPO, Joanne says, is “the best-kept secret in entrepreneurship”. She has recruited several new members since joining in late 2019.

“I have grown professionally and personally through my membership. I am so proud to be a part of WPO and so grateful, and I hope I have contributed as much as I have gained. It’s been an amazing experience.”