One of the biggest advantages that has come out as a result of this pandemic is a sense of community that has begun to flourish in some parts of North America. Neighbors are now making food and dropping it off for one another, or watching one another’s kids or pets, or picking up groceries or mowing the lawn. More of this needs to happen. Community building isn’t a top-down process. It doesn’t happen because some manager or politician decides we should all work together. Don’t get me wrong, management and elected officials have important roles, but the biggest changes and tightest bonds come from people building their communities from the ground up. So, ask for a cup of flour; bake a batch of cookies; offer to do a grocery shop; check-in and say ‘hi’ — the key is to get involved with your community. Help your neighbor, break down the walls, build the bonds, and develop a community that helps one another out. It does take a village, but it’s up to us to build the village.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
Romana is an award-winning personal finance writer and real estate expert. While she started her career with a degree in international comparative politics and print journalism, she would eventually specialize in covering business and finance before transitioning into personal finance and real estate. As the Director of Content for Zolo, a popular online marketplace where more than 9 million Canadians go each month for current real estate data, trends and up-to-date listings, she continues to develop strategies to help consumers and investors make better, more informed decisions. As a sought-after expert, Romana regularly speaks to the media about housing trends, mortgages, homeownership and how this all relates to personal finance.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
As a child, I learned about the power of the written word from watching my parents. As immigrants to Canada, they paid for the delivery of three daily newspapers and on the weekends had an additional three delivered to their door (two British newspapers and the New York Times). Every day, I’d watch their ritual: scan for recent local and world updates in the morning and, in the evening, slowly peruse the rest of the paper, soaking up the days’ events.
As early as Grade 2, I began to write books. I’d cut and staple yellow construction paper before writing and illustrating my own story. (The first one was about a friendly vampire.) By Grade 3, with the help of two classmates, I’d co-written a school play. After casting ourselves in the lead roles — we were eight-years-old! — and our classmates in supporting roles, we practised for weeks before finally performing the play in front of our parents and teachers. I still remember how powerful it was to know that I’d helped craft the tale that had delighted so many.
Over the years, the power of words, thoughts and ideas would continue to transform my life. It came as no surprise, then, that I would eventually find myself a political science graduate following a career in print journalism.
It wasn’t until the death of my father, however, that I began to focus on business, money and personal finance. Like many Generation X kids, my father had been the person responsible for our family’s finances. Unlike many Gen X kids, I was fortunate to have a father willing to teach me all that he knew. I opened my first registered savings account because of my dad; started completing my own tax returns because of my dad, and learned about the power of compound interest and the importance of leverage, because of my dad.
When he died, I was suddenly aware of how much more I had to learn.
Almost two decades later, I consider myself fortunate. My career path forced me to tackle a topic that quickly overwhelmed people — particularly women. In addition, I became better equipped to communicate what I knew (and didn’t know) using the written word; eventually, I would expand my professional expertise and become a content strategist, communicator and public speaker — all with the aim of helping others learn how to make the best financial decisions. As a result, I’ve had the honour of working with industry icons, interviewing some of the top academic and executive minds and humbled when presented with a number of awards.
In my current role, as Director of Content at Zolo, I’ve used my subject-matter knowledge and editorial expertise to help Zolo develop its own brand identity and voice.
Initially, this tech-disrupter start-up just wanted to shake up an industry that was well overdue for an overhaul. Bloated from bureaucracy and tired from the old-boy mentality, Zolo founders knew that a real estate transaction didn’t have to be a black-hole, scary event in a person’s financial life. Buying and selling a home could and should be an inspirational moment — a decision that enabled people to achieve financial goals while achieving personal security.
After five years of tremendous business growth, I was brought in to help develop Zolo’s presence and voice in the marketplace.
I didn’t have a marketing background, and that would’ve been a hindrance if the Zolo founders and c-suite executives simply wanted to pay for glossy strategies. Instead,
More than three years later, we are still growing (even in these tough times) and we continue to give each Canadian homeowner, buyer, seller, renter and investor the best information to make the most informed decision with the most up-to-date data.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
The most interesting part of my journey to and with my current company is how 180 minutes changed my life.
When I first met with Zolo co-founder, Jason Billingsley, my aim wasn’t to join the company.
I had recently left my full-time position at a national personal finance publication with the aim of writing a book and focusing on my personal brand. I wanted to meet with Jason because I was interested in learning first-hand how this small start-up had managed to double their growth each year for five years in a highly competitive marketplace.
Three hours later, I left the Zolo Vancouver offices with a proposal: Join the firm and be part of a team that would change the way real estate business was done in Canada.
While I’d always wanted to go back to the written word — to write a book that could help people to make better, more informed property decisions — I also knew that joining this lean, agile team would force me to challenge myself and use my skills and expertise in creative new ways. I like a challenge; so I accepted the offer.
Three years later and I’ve come full circle. During a casual conversation with the firm’s co-founders, I mentioned how difficult that initial decision was for me — to put aside my dream of writing a book to join the company. Their response? Write the book.
For the last eight months, I’ve been ploughing through the tough job of distilling almost two decades of experience and knowledge about real estate into 250 pages or less. It’s tough. It would’ve been tougher if I didn’t have the support and encouragement of my colleagues and company.
But this journey started simply because I was curious enough to ask a few questions and interested enough to listen to the answers.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I love what my company does and how it approaches individual, group, departmental and company-wide projects. While not official, we have an internal philosophy of “learn fast.” As a company created by coders and developers, Zolo adheres to the agile business philosophy. We consistently strive to meet our growth goals by trying, learning, improving and repeating.
Each project and each task is given an opportunity to either fail or succeed. If it fails, we quickly learn what we can do better, pivot and get on with it. If it succeeds, we determine why it was successful and then double-down on the process.
All projects follow this philosophy, whether it’s a company-wide roll-out of a new revenue stream, such as a mortgage division, or an update on our blog publishing process — it’s all done with the try, learn, improve, repeat philosophy.
It’s this philosophy that prompted the creation of my role and my department; within a year we were hiring a content specialist; we’ve also worked closely with regular freelancers, data journalists and editors. At the moment we are looking to grow our team, and my department, again with the hire of a marketing copywriter.
The investment worked. In just over two years, we almost matched our competitors in virtually all online metrics used for ranking, such as Moz’s proprietary Domain Authority (DA) measurement and Majestic’s Trust Score and Citation Flow. This is a big deal considering most of our competitors are global brands — think Re/Max and Royal Lepage — with multi-million-dollar advertising and marketing budgets.
For example, in this time we increased the brand’s DA from 21 to 50 — an increase of 138%. We are now only a few points behind Re/Max (with a DA of 56) and while we continue to work on increasing the DA, we realise that the logarithmic nature of this task will require different strategies.
This is how we’ve identified our current roster of projects, which includes new branding for our blog along with a ramp-up in our brand authority strategy. At this point, I can move deeper into my role as a subject-matter expert, which includes the launch of a book in the Spring of 2021 that will help homeowners to identify how and why property ownership is the lynch-pin of their financial well-being.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Yes. There are a few.
First, there is Philip Porado, the former editor of advisor.ca and a veteran journalist who specializes in financial and business topics. As a former Washington, D.C.-based finance journalist, Philip had a keen eye for seeing the bigger picture and, as a result, he helped identify and nurture some very well-known business and finance experts still operating on both sides of the border. I interviewed with Philip in 2007, a year before the Great Recession. While I had not applied for a job at his group of publications, he flagged my resume. His philosophy was that finances was a skill that could be learned, but curiosity, tenacity and work ethic has to be innate. It was Mr Porado that set me on the road to becoming a personal finance expert; without him, I would not be in the position I am today.
Duncan helped me craft my voice and to learn the art and craft of service-journalism — the notion that any information put out to the public needs to be actionable advice that you would take yourself. His mantra: If our job was to bake a cake, that cake needs to be so good we would eat it, too.
Jason is the reason I joined Zolo. I had no intention of joining another firm. I had decided that it was time to build my brand and, as a result, was investigating any loose ends (ideas or firms I was still unfamiliar with, at that time). As a new transplant to Vancouver, BC, I had scheduled an information-only interview, to learn about Zolo. I wanted to learn about this firm with its unique business model and unusual agent commission split.
Three hours later, I walked away contemplating a job offer. In those three hours, Jason and I chatted. We chatted about work-life balance; we chatted about work philosophies, the desire to learn and grow and the best ways to approach difficult people, hard concepts and tough problems. I was so impressed with Jason — who he was and what he had already achieved — that I took a job with Zolo. The idea — for both of us — is that we would try it out. We would all “learn fast.”
If it didn’t work, I’d depart from the company and go about with my freelance plan. But it did work. Not only did I help lead a small team to achieve dramatic results, but the promises made during that first interview were kept. Professionally, my skill set grew exponentially. I began to understand the online, SEO component of information dissemination. Not only did I have subject-matter expertise, but now I had the knowledge and skills to make sure that the right information got noticed by the right people.
There has been a great deal of professional growth — and this continues, even to this day — but it’s not just professional growth that kept me at Zolo. It’s the truthful commitment to work-life balance. Even before COVID-19, we were a company dedicated to providing support and balance, particularly to family members. There is nothing worse than feeling like you have to choose between a professional and a familial obligation — and in my role at Zolo, I have never been put into a position of having to choose between these very important facets of my life. I’ve had the flexibility to attend to both obligations and, as a result, the dedication the firm has shown to my work-life balance is reflected in my dedication to the firm. I’m not the only one.
For instance, just before the holiday season in 2019, a colleague and her partner lost everything in a catastrophic house fire. The response from Zolo was astounding. Immediately, the CEO sent a personal note, letting her know that she was to take all the time necessary to settle herself; others in the company found extra clothes and furniture (and even food) so that this colleague and her partner could get through the first few devastating days. As this colleague sorted out the details of rebuilding her life, other work colleagues teamed up to temporarily take on her tasks. When this colleague eventually got somewhat settled in a new place, the CEO checked in; he wanted to be sure she still had enough time to settle herself and to see if there was any other way to support her.
Personally, I felt this support and dedication to employee-well-being many times. One recent example came in August 2019 when during a long weekend, my husband was stung by a bee and went into anaphylactic shock. He almost didn’t make it and, as a result, we found it very hard to concentrate on professional duties during that week. Rather than ask for the mundane paper-work of “time-off” my company responded by asking what they could do; colleagues pulled together to take tasks off my to-do list so that deadlines could be met but without forcing me to turn my attention away from my family.
This is the attitude and actions our team brings to all situations, big or small. It’s how the firm was able to grow so rapidly in the first five years, despite spending little to nothing on marketing; it’s why the company fared so well even when the real estate market ground to a halt during those first few weeks when the novel coronavirus first hit. To get through these tough times, we really do need to work together.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family-related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
Supportive firm or not, the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic were both unique and substantial.
My experience isn’t unique. Like many, when the pandemic first hit, I was faced with the challenge of working remotely while being a parent and a teacher and a resource-aide and camp counsellor. To be clear, I’ve worn all these hats before. I’m the mother to two fabulously fun but very hyperactive boys. I’m a wife to a wonderful husband with many hobbies and passions (read: He gets busy!!). I’m an employee who is driven to get results and plagued by deadlines, and I’ve always taken an active interest in my son’s education both in and out of school. I’ve worn each of these hats plenty of times — just not all at once, every day, and without a break.
To put it bluntly, those first few months were exhausting. To make it work, I had to get creative and be disciplined.
The first step was to stop believing this old belief that as a woman I could do (or have) it all. That’s a stupidly impossible ideal. Something has to give. Rather than fight to achieve this unrealistic goal, only to have the whole thing crack and shatter, I choose my priorities. Now that I have reasonable expectations it was time to figure out a way to make each goal and role work. This meant designating specific times in the day when I was a mother, a teacher, a camp counsellor and an employee.
- I’d start my day at 4 am and work until 7:30 am.
- At around 6 am my husband would wake up, clean the kitchen, make breakfast and prep lunches for all of us (he was still going into his work site throughout this time).
- When he left at 7:30 am, I would take over as mother. Helping my kids to keep their ‘regular’ routines of getting ready for the day and cleaning up after themselves.
- Between 8 and 8:30 am, we’d transition to the school day.
- Each boy would be handed a task list: lessons they’d have to complete for that day.
- Each child could choose which lesson they’d like to tackle — giving them freedom and flexibility, but keeping them on track with learning the core curriculum.
- I’d let the boys decide when they’d take ‘recess’ but snack time and lunchtime were always at the same times.
- During this time, I would do little to no work. I would scan emails and quickly answer Slack messages, but did little to no other job-related tasks. I was a teacher, not an employee.
- After lunch, as long as my sons had completed their task list, they were allowed to play in our front and backyards. Sometimes they could take their bikes to the neighbourhood park (two minutes away). This is when I’d transition to being an employee. Tackling jobs and deadlines so that projects wouldn’t get too far behind.
- If the boys required additional ‘care’ I’d switch to camp counsellor mode and take them to skate parks where they could burn a few hours worth of energy, while I used the WiFi to continue my work.
- At 4:30 pm, my husband would return home. He would then take over the care and supervision of our boys before starting to prepare dinner.
- We’d all eat dinner as a family and, once done, I’d go back to work for an hour or two.
This went on for months.
What were my priorities: To care and educate my children and to make sure that my professional projects kept moving forward so that the department could continue its role to support the company’s growth.
I realise how fortunate I am. Many women did not have the support of their spouse or their employer. Many women had only one option and one strategy to manage the challenges of work and family during the pandemic: Go until you burn out.
The impact of the pandemic hit me and my family hard, but I also realize how fortunate we really are to have compassionate employers, helpful teachers and a health care system we can rely upon.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Thankfully, a supportive firm and a supportive husband meant the role of ‘pandemic-professional’ didn’t have to be worse than it was.
For the first month (mid-March to mid-April) my husband took time off work to home-school our kids. It was a time in the year when I am at my busiest — easily working 12 hour days (in a good year). When the pandemic hit, I had no way out of those crazy, long days, so my husband took one for the team and took time off work.
Once my project was complete, he went back to work and I began the process of juggling each role. To do this effectively, we set up “zones” in our home. Work zones came complete with dedicated desks, daily to-do lists and a set of responsibilities and rewards. Our days morphed and included afternoons of free-play, where my kids could play outside in the backyard and, eventually, in the neighbourhood park; these were the times when mom returned to professional life to complete job-related tasks. At night, my husband would return from work and take over the domestic needs: cooking and cleaning so that I could complete the work required for my job.
Over time, I also began to introduce ways to help me decompress. I love mountain biking. Once the regulations were lifted and we were allowed to gather in small groups, I began to build into my weekly schedule regular rides. I also began to hike regularly with a good girlfriend (using social distancing protocols, of course).
These regularly scheduled events meant that I was not with my family, sorting out the day-to-day dilemmas, but it also meant that I got time and space to remember how fortunate I am and how much I loved my crazy little crew.
It’s easy to get insular in these moments. To think of all that you have lost or don’t have because of this tough situation. I believe the biggest reason for my own success during this tough time was because I work and live in an environment where “me-thinking” is replaced with “we-thinking.” By thinking and supporting others, all of us are able to succeed, particularly in the really tough times.
Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
Short and simple, my biggest challenge was and still is childcare.
With restrictions, the accessibility of regular and ad-hoc childcare has dwindled and, at times, disappeared. Unlike many families, this gap cannot be closed with screen time. Our boys have medical issues that don’t allow us to use this as a long-term solution. (It’s also why home-schooling was a challenge until I adopted my zoned-area and list of lessons approach.)
As a woman, I find that the bulk of the responsibility for childcare still falls on my shoulders — even with a very supportive, pro-feminist husband. I think this is partly because I am a woman (does my DNA make me a natural caregiver? Not sure, but I certainly feel an inclination towards this role) and partly because I am a work-at-home professional. This means my gender and proximity puts me front-and-centre as the go-to for childcare responsibilities.
Any measures created to help ease the childcare burden will probably come too late for me and my family, but I still believe that a solution is critical. Women are no longer secondary earners; we take up important space in professional roles and entrepreneurial worlds across every job sector. If we want the economy to grow and the entire social fabric of the nation to rise in base-line standards, then we need to support women in their choice to work and have a family. This support doesn’t come from the promotion of that outdated belief that “we can have it all.” It comes from making good quality, affordable childcare more accessible to everyone.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
To try and solve this problem, I’ve been very open with my employer. Now that my boys are back attending school, I’ve notified my colleagues that I need to stop work at 2:50 pm in order to pick my kids. They are also aware that I start my workday at 5 am, in order to make sure my work obligations are complete. This flexibility in work hours has been an integral component in allowing me to meet my family and work obligations.
I’ve also proactively reached out to other women who are professionals in my school. The result has been a network of women who look out for one another. Got a conference call you can’t reschedule right when you have to pick up the kids? No problem. One of us will pick up the slack and grab your children. Whether it’s a stay-at-home hobby-turned-business mom, or a film-industry professional, or a sales executive, our sole aim is to help each other out.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
To be truthful: Find a time and a place where you will not be interrupted. It sounds stupidly simple, but that’s my best advice. For me, it’s a dedicated office and the ability and flexibility to work from 5 am to 7:30 am, uninterrupted. I’m still surprised at how much I can accomplish in the early morning hours.
Another suggestion is to stop beating yourself up for your wants and desires. In the first few days, as I juggled roles, I was so stressed I could barely think. It was an unsustainable place to be. In the end, I needed to give myself permission to be a professional; to make my job and my professional work a priority and to not feel guilty about wanting to make this an important part of who I am.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
Who said I stayed sane?
Seriously, my strategies to stay inside are to not stay inside. I think that’s one of the fortunate truths about where I live. Even when we had to socially-distance and remain isolated from even our neighbours, we could still go out to the backyard or go hiking on nearby trails — and we did. Every single day.
If, however, you want advice on how to stay sane with shelter-in-place regulations in place, my suggestion is two-fold:
- Create zones and time blocks (see above), and
- Don’t be afraid to implement “me-time.” There’s nothing wrong with telling your kids (or family) that you need some time to yourself to: Decompress, regroup, relax
I’m honest with my kids. I tell them that I’m human and that I also need time to recalibrate. I think it’s good for them to see and learn this about me and from me. It helps humanize and normalize their own need to take time out for themselves and helps them learn how to do this self-care in a respectful manner.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Yes. Despite the difficulties imposed by the pandemic, some great things have also happened. Here are my 5 reasons to be hopeful:
- Institutional acknowledgement.
For decades, women have complained about the impossible task of trying to balance work and life obligations. While some have listened and adapted to help ease that burden, most have not. Then COVID hit and, quite suddenly, the difficulties women have faced for decades became the difficulties everyone now faced, regardless of gender.
Why is this good? Because now there is an explicit acknowledgement that work/life balance is hard to find and maintain. Since fundamental, systemic change cannot happen without acknowledgement, this is an important first step. I’m not saying women across North America will suddenly be free from shouldering the burden of trying to find this balance, but perhaps now it may be easier for them to not be 100% perfect at it and solely responsible for it.
At the very least, we can now hold institutional beliefs accountable and that’s when real change — the change in what we believe — can begin to take place.
2. Personal responsibility.
A culture of institutional favoritism — where one ethnicity, gender or socio-demographic segment — is given preferential treatment results in a variety of consequences. One of the more hidden and insidious side effects is the development of a victim mentality. It creeps into our psyche and absolves us of taking personal responsibility.
Beliefs, like, “I wouldn’t be like this if…” or “What’s the point I’m only one person…” or “That business/government/group/society has to change XYZ before it gets better…” are all limiting false perspectives that keep us trapped in a victim mentality.
There were times during the past six months (and years) where I’ve said these and similar statements.
- “What’s the point, my kids are just going to fall behind,” or
- “If the school system would actually give us some proper home-schooling resources,” or
- “We need a new government before things get better.”
- To break free, I had to stop waiting for someone or something else to change. My kids could learn, but it meant giving up my Friday night of TV watching in order to create lesson plans. And when it comes to things getting better, that’s always possible with or without a change in the government or the way institutions operate. It just takes persistence, tenacity and a bit of personal responsibility. Just look at the lives of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Rosa Parks and the suffragette sisters, Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst.
3. Good-bye archaic work schedules.
Why are typical business hours from 9 am to 5 pm? I’m not educated on the reasons behind this but what I can say is that COVID may have killed the need to conform to those hours. This is good news for those of us who feel more productive during non-business hours. Not only can we work non-conforming hours, but we can work these hours and get credit for it. (Night owls and early birds, rejoice!)
4. No more silly commute.
For those of us who once commuted to the office, even when it made no sense, the work-from-home and remote-first strategies are a welcome result of the flatten-the-curve strategies. While in-person and face-to-face meetings are still an integral part of workplace culture, the idea that your physical presence needs to be at a physical location in order to prove you’re doing your job may finally disappear.
5. Hello, meritocracy.
Along the same line of thought, without the need to ‘show’ you’re at work doing your job comes the idea of a results-based workplace. Rather than promote and reward employees for the wrong reasons (charismatic, old network, etc.), this new-world order may start to move towards a more results-based approach to professional rewards.
6. Hello, neighbour.
Finally, one of the biggest advantages that has come out as a result of this pandemic is a sense of community that has begun to flourish in some parts of North America. Neighbours are now making food and dropping it off for one another, or watching one another’s kids or pets, or picking up groceries or mowing the lawn. More of this needs to happen. Community building isn’t a top-down process. It doesn’t happen because some manager or politician decides we should all work together. Don’t get me wrong, management and elected officials have important roles, but the biggest changes and tightest bonds come from people building their communities from the ground up. So, ask for a cup of flour; bake a batch of cookies; offer to do a grocery shop; check-in and say ‘hi’ — the key is to get involved with your community. Help your neighbour, break down the walls, build the bonds, and develop a community that helps one another out. It does take a village, but it’s up to us to build the village.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Reach out. Take a chance and ask how they are doing or let them know how you are doing. If you have the bandwidth — either financially or emotionally — offer to help. Even a small action can go a long way.
When the pandemic regulations started to lift, I kept reminding myself that it costs nothing to be kind. When someone cut me off, I’d take a deep breath, repeat the mantra and then let the next person in; when a customer service rep was snarky or totally not present, I would stop and ask whether or not they’d had a good day. If I phoned to make a doctor’s appointment, to schedule a consultation with my banker or stopped in at the grocery store, I made sure to smile (underneath my mask), look them in the eye and stay present when I asked, and they answered: How are you doing today?
We often feel that big, grand gestures are required to help people. But just being present and acknowledging where they are at and what they are dealing with is a powerful step towards building connection — and, in the end, haven’t we all learned how important this is?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be the change you want to see.”
This is my mantra. Seriously. If I were to sit around and wait for others to change, so that things would get better in my life I’d be dead. Instead, I was fortunate to be taught about personal responsibility; armed with this, you can be the change you want to see. Remember, nothing changes, if nothing changes and everything changes as soon as one of us stops buying in.
How can our readers follow you online?
Yes! I love when readers find me, follow me and reach out to me!
I get emails and calls all the time (I also get Facebook and other social media messages).
I can be reached at:
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!