Faces of Philanthropy: Joan Ethier

Entrepreneur and Faculty of Science alumna establishes the Joan Ethier Women in Science Award — and shares her thoughts on the importance of mentorship and support.

Andrew Lyle - 08 March 2022

Joan Ethier (BSc ‘68) shares her thoughts on the importance of mentorship and the inspiration behind founding the Joan Ethier Women in Science Award.

Joan Ethier (BSc ‘68) shares her thoughts on the importance of mentorship and the inspiration behind founding the Joan Ethier Women in Science Award.

Joan Ethier (BSc ‘68) is no stranger to the power of a positive influence. Encouraged by her brother to attend the University of Alberta, her successful career has included founding a successful computer systems consulting firm and running it for 20 years. Now, she is supporting the next generation — and promoting diversity in science — by establishing the Joan Ethier Women in Science Award.

“Ultimately, my hope is to see a far higher percentage of female students graduating and working in senior leadership roles that require a background in the sciences,” said Ethier. “I believe that once there is a critical mass of women in senior decision-making roles, together women and men will collaborate, rather than compete, to achieve greater results.”

To support that vision, Ethier has established the Joan Ethier Women in Science Award, an endowment that will support students identifying as female based on aptitude, interest, and need. The endowment will focus on two components: providing student financial support, and facilitating mentorship and networking opportunities. 

“My goal is to help young women who have an interest and aptitude in the sciences to pursue their own academic and career interests,” said Ethier. “Many students need financial support as I did. Their grades may not be at the top of the class so they may be precluded from scholarships, but they still have the aptitude and interest to succeed. Those are the students I want to help financially.”

The financial aid and mentorship support from the award will enable students to progress along their own academic career journeys. And Ethier is well-acquainted with the difference that support and someone that believes in you can make.

“My brother, Jack Kenyon (BSc ‘60), paved the way for me by attending the U of A,” said Ethier. “He had a significant influence on my life by getting me interested in puzzles and problem solving when I was 10 years old.”

Ethier explains that her brother, a mathematician, delighted in teaching her algebra and challenging her with interesting puzzles, sharing with her the fun side of mathematics. 

“Jack’s most significant influence was to encourage me to go to university. Without that influence, there is a very good chance I would not have attended university,” said Ethier. “My parents' income was below the poverty line and they didn’t have university educations. Although they were proud of Jack’s accomplishments, they would never have encouraged me, a girl, to attend university. Jack always assumed I would go, so I did!”

Ethier enrolled at the U of A in the Faculty of Science, eventually shifting her studies from mathematics to focus on computing sciences — a field that looked very different at the time, she explains, with punched cards, mainframe computers, and reams of printed results. 

Of her time at the U of A, Ethier fondly recalls coffee and cinnamon buns between classes, featuring lively discussion, debate, and many solutions written on napkins. She also met her future husband, Doug Ethier (BSc ‘68) when she bought books from him in her first year.

After graduation, Joan went on to teach computer technology at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) and worked in the computer systems industry in Calgary for about 12 years. Then, an opportunity arose to do some systems consulting and staff training for a local company, which sparked the beginning of Ethier’s consulting career — ultimately leading her to form the consulting firm Ethier in 1982.

The firm specialized in business systems consulting, business process innovation, and change management. Ethier’s company provided project management, analysis, design, implementation, and training services to the Calgary business community for nearly 40 years. It was bought in 2021 by Sia Partners, an international consulting firm.

Ethier’s career is a fantastic success story, and one that highlights an Albertan at the forefront of innovation. But a successful journey like hers, Ethier notes, is often the result of the people who influence and support you. It is in this spirit that she has established the Joan Ethier Women in Science Award, and shares her thoughts on the importance of inspiration and support:

The genesis of this award was my good fortune to have a brother who was such a significant positive influence on me. As I was having fun with math games, I watched my girlfriends who had been told they couldn’t do math because “girls aren’t good at math.” As you’d expect, they struggled because they believed what they were told. I knew they were smart and capable, but they didn’t have the advantage of such a positive influence. I’ve always believed that what you can do depends so much on what you believe you can do. And that is often affected by the people who influence you.

So often the spark to pursue a field of study or a career comes from meeting and connecting with someone in the field. My goal for the mentorship and networking portion of the endowment is to facilitate opportunities for these connections for female students. Meeting, connecting, and working with women and men in fields of interest will allow them to learn from people in their chosen fields and provide insights and connections they might not have encountered otherwise.

— Joan Ethier

For students beginning their own academic or industry journeys, Ethier’s is a story of inspiration and of passing along support to the next generation. For those students, Ethier offers some advice:

“Look for opportunities to connect with well-respected people in your field of interest. Connect with as many as you can. Be bold, approach them, ask for their advice and follow it,” said Ethier. “Learn what it takes to be a good leader and seek out opportunities to lead. And importantly: trust in yourself.”

Inspired to help support the next generation of female scientists? We invite you to join our community of donors and support the Joan Ethier Women in Science Award.