Be Anything

As a business commentator, Deborah Yedlin takes on the world one issue at a time. You don't have to look far to find the source of her determination and chutzpah

Scott Rollans - 07 January 2016

At the age of 25, Deborah Yedlin found herself working in New York City as an analyst for financial giant Goldman Sachs Group, a job she won through persistence and sheer force of will.

It was 1987 and Yedlin arrived at Goldman Sachs just as it had named its first female partner - a groundbreaking move that had set Wall Street abuzz. Yedlin couldn't understand all the fuss: "For someone like me, it was just the way things should be."

Yedlin had spent a lifetime watching her own mother defy and defeat gender barriers. Tova Yedlin (pictured above with Deborah), a professor at the University of Alberta, had to work consistently harder than her male colleagues in order to get ahead, says Deborah. Unable to gain tenure as a history professor, she switched departments. When she finally became a professor of Slavic and Eastern European studies, in 1975, Deborah says, Tova was only the eighth woman in the U of A's 67-year history to become a full professor.

So when Deborah chose to move to New York and blaze a trail into another male-dominated field, she felt sure Tova would be thrilled - but that wasn't the case. "After all that hard work and perseverance - which my mother had taught me - she didn't speak to me for two weeks," Yedlin laughs. "I think she was scared of the city."

Her mother's worries aside, Yedlin thrived. The Prairie girl with a BA from the University of Alberta proved more than a match for her mostly male, mostly Ivy League co-workers. But the pace was punishing. "It was a Faustian bargain," she observes. "You sold your soul for a paycheque." Then, one late night at the office ("they were all late nights") she had a pivotal quarrel with a colleague. He'd taken bitter exception to a small button pinned to Yedlin's cubicle wall, which read, "Health care is a right, not a privilege." After the incident, Yedlin found herself thinking, "This is a different place and I don't know if I want to stay here."

Yedlin has no regrets about her time in New York - "It was an amazing experience. I learned a ton about the markets" - but she left and never looked back. She returned to Canada, where she earned her MBA at Queen's University and continued her career in investment banking before finally turning to journalism.

Anyone familiar with Yedlin's work as one of Canada's foremost business commentators for the Financial Post, Globe & Mail, Calgary Herald and CBC Radio knows she is not one to back down from a good argument. At various times in her career, you could find her railing against the Alberta government's ill-fated 2007 plan to raise energy royalties, or holding industry and government to account for not taking adequate time to listen to First Nations' concerns over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

Yedlin traces this determination, this chutzpah, directly back to her mother. Deborah grew up with Tova's wartime stories of escaping Poland barely a step ahead of the Nazis. Tova lived through hunger and heartbreak in the former Soviet Union (she lost a brother to the Second World War) before arriving in Edmonton with little to her name except her matura, the Polish equivalent of a high school diploma.

Given her mother's example, Yedlin says she could never feel deterred by life's obstacles. "I didn't grow up in the war. I didn't see my life completely destroyed. I've had so many advantages that she never had."

Yedlin also learned a few things about what she wanted in her life that her mother hadn't achieved. "In her drive to succeed, as an immigrant and someone seeking to rebuild a life after war, my mom didn't quite achieve balance," she says. Tova rarely cooked, took time for herself or cultivated friendships outside work - all areas that Yedlin sees as essential in her own life.

In building her own career and family, Yedlin has worked hard to find the balance her mother couldn't achieve a generation earlier. This meant setting aside her first career after marrying Martin Molyneaux, a fellow financier, in 1993. "I realized that two investment bankers in the house was not a good idea." Instead, Yedlin shifted gears to pursue her other passion, writing.

The move paid off in 1996, when the Financial Post began using Yedlin as a freelancer, and CBC Radio invited her to deliver a weekly business commentary - a gig that continues to this day. She says she pestered the editor of the Calgary Herald enough that in 1997 she was given a job there, becoming the paper's business columnist 10 years later. Along the way, she and Molyneaux raised three sons.

"It's great to have professional relationships, but one day, when you finally leave the office, they don't matter as much. It's the friendships that matter."

As a journalist, Yedlin is best known for her talent at demystifying complex business issues, placing them in a larger context for a general audience. She credits this to the wide-ranging liberal arts education she received at the U of A. "BA stands for 'be anything,' " she says. "It makes me insane how disparaged Arts graduates are."

Away from work, Yedlin and Molyneaux strive to set an example for their boys by consistently giving back to their community - another lesson Yedlin learned from her own parents. "They gave to charity as much as they could on a professor's salary and a teacher's salary," Yedlin says.

In 2009, the U of A's Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies launched the annual Tova Yedlin Lecture Series, funded by an endowment by Yedlin and Molyneaux. Yedlin's unfailingly modest mother initially couldn't come to terms with the honour. "She was so mad at me," Yedlin says with a laugh. "We wanted a way to mark her contribution as an educator and to acknowledge the important role that the U of A played in giving my parents a second chance in Canada." Happily, Tova eventually acquiesced and helped shape the theme of the series: Central and East European Jewry prior to the Holocaust.

Tova says she will never forget the U of A for providing a new life after years of war and unspeakable hardship. "The University of Alberta was, for me, something I never dreamed of," Tova says simply. "The acceptance from Day 1 - the help, the support and the level of studies - was unbelievable."

These days, with Molyneaux recently retired and her boys mostly grown, mother and daughter relish the chance to spend more time together, a luxury denied for too much of their lives. "She turned 93 in November and she has a steel-trap mind," says Yedlin. After a beat, she adds: "She can't find her keys, but none of us can."