Be Your Own Superhero: A No Blame or No Shame Mantra
Just two days before the US election we speak to Elena Christopoulos. Elena stands out for so many reasons. Elena Christopoulos is a scientist and sustainability expert with over 20 years of expertise as an energy and political consultant who “walks the talk of sustainability.” She is a Canadian who advises well-known US politicians, most recently, presidential candidate Joe Biden.
She challenges the status quo across a number of male-dominated fields. Elena is also the Principal of ECMC and is on the Buzz advisory board. She implemented the first urban wind turbine in North America and is responsible for the creation of more than 500,000 green jobs. Elena was named Toronto’s Woman of the Year for her work designing and implementing wind turbines and solar arrays in Canada, Greece, Germany, England, and the US. She has managed over 40 successful political campaigns throughout the world and it is her goal to get more women into politics. Elena is a strong advocate for women as a mentor, peer, colleague and friend. She is a Board Member of the YMCA in Santa Monica, Commissioner on the Status of Women with the City of Santa Monica and the Founder and President of the Santa Monica Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA).
In this episode, Elena shares stories from the environmental and political frontlines and talks about being your own superhero, childhood lessons, her unique global perspective as a Greek girl who emigrated to Canada and now lives in the USA and consults worldwide, her personal experience with the #MeToo movement and so much more. She gives women the courage to blaze their own path, take risks and go after extraordinary achievements.
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Elena Christopoulos: Women feel that they have to be a hundred percent qualified for the gig. I had a team; it was 50% women... reminded by my aunts as a child that having diverse people at the table will give you diverse results.
Chelsea Brown: This week, I spoke with Elena Christopoulos, scientist and political consultant, who most recently has worked with public figures like Elizabeth Warren and presidential candidate and Former Vice President, Joe Biden, on their green platforms.
Elena: Growing up in school in both Greece and Europe and seeing wind turbines at a young age and how gorgeous they are and such a beacon of renewable energy and just such a beacon of hope in my perspective.
Chelsea: Elena and I first met at our inaugural Millie Speaks in 2018 and I just fell in love. She is known to many as a friend, a mentor, a guide, and a light.
Elena: There's no blame or no shame and I want to make sure that becomes my motto, in times of doubt I know what to do and I can have the tools for myself and for other women.
Chelsea: She opens up about her experience with sexual assault at Queen's University and the Me Too movement and how her life's mission is to inspire women to believe in themselves and have confidence.
Elena: I saw my life change dramatically when I started speaking publicly about what happened to me.
Chelsea: She is someone who walks the talk.
Elena: Take a moment to pause, reflect, and recognize your efforts. Don't ever forget. It's important to recognize that in others as well.
Chelsea: She brings women together everywhere she goes and we're so excited to share this conversation with you.
Oh, I'm so happy to talk to you.
Elena: It's really nice to talk to you. Yes.
Chelsea: It's so good to hear your voice. You have so much going on in your life, thank you again for being here with me today. One of my favourite qualities about you is that you take women wherever you go. You're a major advocate for growth, acceptance, and mentoring. How did that become you? Where did that all start?
Elena: Well, thank you, Chelsea. That's really kind to say. Growing up in Europe, and I'm half Greek and I have a large extended Greek family, and there's a lot of women, a lot of very strong, opinionated women. They have always said, "Pay it forward or make sure there's women in the room." Actually, when as a child, I learned quite quickly. They said, "Whatever you do, it's so good to have people with different backgrounds and different experiences at the table because you get different results." For example, in Greece, there's between... any given day there's maybe 10 political parties, the extreme left, the extreme right, and that's pretty much my family, so I learned quite quickly acceptance, respect, and also to make sure you had facts.
We had to give a little, as a child, a little story why we believed in something, but it had to be facts behind it. I also had mentors growing up and I had three mentors that were men. They had always said to me to ensure that to pay it forward, that I would always have women in the room and just to take a note if I was the only woman in college or university or in male spaces, would there be diverse results if a woman was in the room. That's a little bit of how I've remembered that and have taken that forward.
Chelsea: Oh, wow. Your family sound like wonderful people. When you moved to Canada, did you feel a culture shock?
Elena: Very much so, actually, and I'm just very lucky to have parents who push back on other norms, or North America, which was very interesting. From an environmental perspective, growing up in school in both Greece and Europe and seeing wind turbines at a young age and how gorgeous they are and how they just... such a beacon of renewable energy and just such a beacon of hope in my perspective. There wasn't a lot in Canada and people said, "Oh, Canada's very green." I said, "Sure, it can be more green." I also... there's a lot of strong women in Europe and I realized quickly as a woman using her voice, with just a strong voice I might get pushback and I just really didn't mind. I just kept going forward with that.
Chelsea: Well, I'm glad that you didn't mind. Do you think living in Europe was what inspired you to care so much about the environment?
Elena: Yeah. Well, I think it was maybe happenstance. With my extended Greek family, many were women, and many were not formally educated. Many were farmers and some of the smartest people I know and really gave me an appreciation of the environment, where does our food comes from, what's in our water, what's in our air, and how it's all connected. I learned quite quickly how everything was connected, learning that I ate food that was organic before there was an organic label placed on it and I had my first... I remember, too, my parents were pretty strict in Greece with me and Europe and I remember I wanted to just try American peanut butter as a kid and I remember seeing the Jiffy logo, it was just calling my name in an American store. I remember trying it at 13 and my parents kind of giggling like high school kids at the corner of the store watching me. I was like, "What on earth is going on?" I had Jiffy Peanut Butter. It tasted very sweet and realized quite quickly I got sick. My parents asked if I could look at the container of the peanut butter and say did I recognize what was in this peanut butter. I saw a slew of chemicals, additives, and peanut was I think the 10th thing down. I realized quite quickly.
It was like, what my family did was set me up in a very good way of allowing me to have the experiences for myself, but just guiding me on the way. It's really great to have family that don't dull your shine on curiosity. I think they just allow that, especially as a child, so I, at my age now, I'm still very curious about many things.
I had an aunt pass away of breast cancer. Her name was Rita; she was very close to me. This is how old I am, my parents have this on 8-track taping me going to doctors after doctor asking what happened to my aunt because she didn't smoke, she barely drank, when she did it was wine, red wine, so I wanted to know what was going on. I couldn't get an answer and all the doctors were men. I was like, "Can I just speak to one woman doctor?" They said, "There's none here." I said, "Okay." I was quickly noticing who was taking up space and who was not in the room.
Chelsea Brown: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Wow. I'm so sorry about your aunt, Elena. That must have been so confusing as a child. I don't think I've ever asked you this or talked to you about this. You were named Toronto's Woman of the Year for designing and implementing wind turbines in Canada, US, and Europe.
Elena: I went to Queen's University and I'm very proud of my Queen's school because I had the European background and was exposed to wind turbines at an early age and just thought they were beautiful. In downtown Toronto, Lake Ontario, and for those in Canada, you may know the Canadian National Exhibition, I always noticed that there was wind and I always noticed that was a place to site a turbine. I'm in my early 20s and I was thinking about school and thinking about how we can green up the world, how we can green up Toronto. I thought, "I'd love to have a turbine here." I didn't go for the first, it was more of how can we put Toronto on the map for greener things or what can we do here?
I had a team. It was 50% women, people of colour, and again, reminded by my aunts as a child that having diverse people at the table will give you diverse results. It's so important to learn from people with different backgrounds because otherwise you're in a room of people that... of yes folks that have a shared same experience and I find it's boring. Let's get some exciting results in. It was... I don't know if it was naivety or if I was still that determined child, but I mean, I got laughed at a lot. The names, I mean, so many. I'm still called names today, but PG ones are like Wind Girl, Wind Lady, Wind Woman, and they said, "You're never going to get this up."
As my first project in Toronto, I did get the mayor of the city, the prime minister, and I had other... the head of the Toronto Hydro and Ontario Hydro in the room. They said if you get the funding and get someone to give a turbine, and what we can do, and it's great. I got the studies done, I did the environmental impact statements and was really, everything was done, and I just kept going. I think because maybe people saw that I was just so passionate about it with facts, I just started to do this. The team was excited, so it ended up happening. I mean, through that, I learned a lot about projects and dos and don'ts and I learned a lot about nimbyism and that was something that... that was an important thing, which for those who don't know, nimbyism is not in my backyard, which happens quite a lot. Right? We love the idea of a wind turbine, but we just don't want to be close to it.
Chelsea: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Elena: That's when community studies happened and that's where we had open town halls, public meetings to actually hear from the people who could be benefiting from the wind turbine, meaning they would actually get their hydro paid for and they'd be able to... with this wind turbine stands over a hundred meters tall and took 256 homes off the grid and was the first urban turbine in North America and it was the first Feed-In-Tariff Program, meaning if you had extra energy, you could actually feed it back into the grid and get a refund on that. I thought, "Hey, this is easy, this is wonderful and sure, there's a couple knocks," but realizing as I look back today, I'm quickly reminded how difficult that sometimes you just have the magic in the room and it happens, but never to forget the magic and to keep on pressing on, as one would say.
Chelsea: That's amazing. Going back to the story about your aunt, and I'm so sorry about your loss,-
Elena: Thank you.
Chelsea: ... and not seeing women in the room, and I'm sure that was a similar situation with this, how did you get people to follow your vision?
Elena: That's a very good question, Chelsea, because there were those who thought, "Oh, my goodness, this is never going to happen, this is ridiculous." Yes. It was taking people on who were interested in this or wanted to learn about renewable energy and wanted to help have this project go on. I think it's from that a lot of the people I've worked with have gone on to other wind campaigns, environmental campaigns, sometimes political campaigns as well. That's where I also saw the lack of intersection between politics and science, which is interesting because still today, my career, I'm either on an environmental campaign or a political campaign, interesting to note that it's usually women who ask how do I go from one to the other.
Elena: It's not the men.
Elena: Even when I finished that wind turbine, for example, the project was going underway, a gentleman approached me and said that he was going to run for Mayor of Toronto. I said, "Oh, that's great. Do you need someone to help with the climate change policy?" He said, "No, I'd like you to run my campaign."
Chelsea Brown: Wow.
Elena: I thought, well, the first thing I said was, "Well, you know, I don't have a political background, I don't have a political science background," and he said, "Did I ask for one?" I said, "Actually, no, you did not." He said, "Look, Elena. You just ran an environmental campaign, it's similar to one in politics and maybe if you like the platform or can improve it, I'd love to have you run the campaign." I was kind of scratching my chin at the point and I went to my mentors, who were actually three men. They said, "You know, Elena," they laughed at first because they said, "Okay, so learn this lesson. Men would just go for it. Fake it until you make it, that type of thing, but women feel that they have to be a hundred percent qualified for the gig, or job," and they said, "We'll help you."
Two of them are friends, friends of Pierre Trudeau and worked with him, but they said, "It's similar. We can help you learn that. Sure, you can take political science classes, but you don't have to have a degree in political science if you don't want to, and let's see if it works." Learning quickly how men view the world and opportunities and women view the world and opportunities, I learned quite early on in my experience, my work experience.
Chelsea: If you're okay to talk about it, I would love to talk about your experience with the Me Too Movement.
Elena: Sure. For me, I mean, I'm a survivor of sexual assault. I've been sexually assaulted numerous times and there was shame around that absolutely. I mean, my university, I was sexually assaulted on campus, and it was so difficult for me.
Chelsea: Yeah. I know this is a big ask because it's opening up a wound, but I wonder if you would mind telling a little bit about your experience at Queen's.
Elena: Sure, sure, sure. I mean, Queen's was my first choice. I remember from high school that a lot of my university... or high school, rather, didn't go to Queen's. I was thinking of professional soccer league in the US and for soccer scholarships and I decided to choose Queen's. Quickly, I chose Queen's as well because they don't have the Greek system, so I thought, but there's things that happen. There's a lot of drinking, there's other things that happen. I remember for me what happened, my story is that I got mono the second year, which is very typical for students. I mean, you're overwhelmed, exhausted, and I had already been harassed enough, but I came back to Queen's and my friends, my housemates, decided to throw a party for me. I went to that and I went to another party. Unfortunately, that's where my memory of that evening ends. I mean, there was my friends were there and there was... I remember drinking and then the mind is an amazing tool because I can't remember what happened that night.
I do remember the next morning waking up naked with a sheet over me and seeing blood and cuts and being very out of it, knowing that I had been drugged, not sure what drugs were in my system, but just in a fog. I remember realizing I needed to get out of there quickly. I saw blood beside somebody else, a friend that I knew, and had to get out and didn't care. I just took the sheets in kind of like a caftan, just tied it around me and went out to the middle of the street and called 911. I remember going to the hospital, I remember things about the hospital when I came to of just some talk about survivors. At that point, I had no idea that I was even assaulted. I just remember hurting and I remember going to the washroom and I remember everything hurt.
Some doctors have better bedside manners than others and some are tired, but I remember doctors and nurses talking about that. I was going in and out of consciousness and I heard them say, "Yes, that's another sexual assault survivor." I thought, "Oh, my gosh. They're talking about me." I had marks on my face and marks on my body. As I came to, and I thought, "Oh, my goodness, I've got to talk to my parents. What am I going to say?" I thought, "Okay," you can noticeably see that there was marks on my face and glass and other things, so I had made sure that I had to come up with something because I didn't want to scare them too much. I called my mom and then my dad and I have always had a very close bond. When my dad heard my voice, he knew something was off. I said, "My appendix broke and I fell onto a floor and some glass, and things like that, so I'm not in the best shape." Years later, I knew he knew that day that I was assaulted.
There it goes, I tried to come back to Queen's and finish one of my degrees and I just couldn't, and that's the trap. A lot of students, especially a lot of women who are assaulted on campus don't finish their school and they start to work or they... I mean, you just survived a trauma. Why would you want to go back to the place of the trauma? The police... I mean, I did all the police reports and all of that as well and it's amazing what survivors and thrivers can do. I try to get back to school and then I had a job. Then I thought, I can't do all of this, so certain things I need to put on hold, but I did have... When I went back to Queen's, I remember seeing students just laughing and playing innocently and I was like, "Wow, the three men that assaulted me don't get to take that away from me. They don't get to take that child away from me or that idealistic student, so what can I do here to change and what can I do for me?"
That was quick learning on my part, and I know, again, that's privilege and luck and did people believe me because I was a woman, a white woman. I didn't have too many people not believing me, which I know is not the story for many. I wasn't ashamed, but I also knew it was going to be a long road ahead for me and I quickly went into... I asked my family physician, who's still my family physician today in Canada, and said, "I need to get to some therapy because I know a lot of things are going to come out that I just don't even know yet." I found my first therapist after 35 tries because each therapist prior to that said, "Oh, you're a lovely, beautiful young woman, you've got a great life ahead of you. Here's some antidepressants and you'll be fine."
Elena: I was like, "No, that's not how this is going to happen."
Chelsea: Not what I'm looking for. Yeah.
Elena: The therapist that I ended up taking, and my doctor was quite miffed as well, he said, "I'm really sorry, Elena. I'm really sorry about this. Try this gentleman." I thought, "Oh, a man. Really?" When I went to his office on St. Claire Avenue, yes, then it was gorgeous. He's passed away now, but he was a German man married to a woman from Kenya who was a absolutely gorgeous wife and there's all this African art. It just drew me in, great music.
He said to me, he said, "So what number am I?" I said, "I'm sorry. What do you mean, what number?" He said, "I know I'm not your first choice for a therapist." I said, "No, no, you're not. You're number 35." He said, "Good God, 35." I said, "Yeah, it's not a favourite number of mine and I'm not 35 years old." He said, "Look, I'm really sorry about that. You don't deserve that, so what we're going to do here, if you decide to choose me, is we're not going to talk about meds. If you need that, we can talk about that with your other physician and the three of us can talk, but if this is a space for you, you feel comfortable, that's how I'd like to have our conversations. Trauma takes time to understand and process. You don't have to process everything right away."
I laughed and then I said, "Well, you know, I'm a type A." He goes, "Oh, I get that. Oh, I get that, but if you're here, I don't want you worrying about how you're going to get home or... can we just have conversations about who you are, we're going to get forward." He said, "Why is therapy so important to you?" I said, "Because things are going to come up that I don't know how to handle and this also has nothing to do with me and there's no blame or no shame and I want to make sure that becomes my motto. I really continue to believe in myself and in times of doubt, I know what to do and I can have the tools for myself and for other women."
Elena: That was an amazing learning experience and, yeah, I think if I can help one woman who's been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and say, "You know what? Me too, and you don't deserve it and please, it wasn't your fault." I see so much, so many women not return to school or not have the therapy. There's resources that are free and they're available, so there's accessibility. That's pretty much why, too, why I became a commissioner was to promote women in science and politics, to get more women in boardrooms, but also, as a survivor should know that there's resources out there for whatever your background is and wherever you are in your journey of healing. I think that's... we're all healing wounds, but to do that, to think that life is so beautiful for everyone, maybe that's my optimistic naïve look at the time. It's also a privilege as a white woman and if I can help anyone else out there, that is my journey.
Chelsea: Thank you so much for sharing that. I'm tearing up listening to you because you're such a gracious and graceful person who never deserves to feel that.
Elena: I mean, the odds of me surviving what happened to me were very slim to none. I think about friends and women I know who didn't make it and friends who passed away. Trauma looks different to many different people, so I guess it made me more determined to... I wanted a career in science, I wanted a career in politics. I do want that. The only person that gets to take that away is myself if I choose a different path. That's, I guess, maybe my determination to help other women and others how to hold space for survivors and someone, especially as a Canadian in the US, I see those who don't have access, so how can I make that more accessible for others.
Chelsea: The men from Queen's are now in jail.
Elena: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Chelsea: Just wanted to make that clear.
Elena: There are three of them. Yeah. One was a friend of an ex-boyfriend.
Chelsea: Wow. What can we be doing to end rape culture? I believe one of your first initiatives was to bring more light into the parks or the campuses?
Elena: That's exactly right. That's why I became a commissioner.
Elena: I was walking at night with my husband and noticed the lack of lighting and because I engineer and he's an architect and we'd always look at lighting and lack thereof and spaces and places. That's kind of what an architect looks at, public spaces. I said, "I would not feel comfortable running here." That's when I had brought it to a gentleman in Houston and said, "I'd like to see more lighting in the downtown, on the pier," and that's exactly... that an initiative that I started. I didn't tell them the reasons why. I just said... I did say I didn't find it safe for women and I'm sure if I feel that, then many others feel the same.
Chelsea: From talking to you before, I understand that it's your goal to create more jobs for women within science.
Elena: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chelsea: You had mentioned that 28% I think are women and you want to continue increasing that number.
Chelsea: What are you doing to achieve this goal?
Elena: I thought maybe I could get up to 50% by 50, but lofty goals are always good. How I'm doing it, too, is speaking to schools and speaking to young girls. It's also what girls think of scientists and that you're not just in the lab, although, these days it's very important working on vaccines, etcetera, but there's so much more that you can do. It's finding out what is your... what are you passionate, are you passionate about the environment, are you passionate about environmental science. There's some classes to get you interested in that. To move the needle, I've created almost a half million green jobs.
Chelsea: I know.
Elena: That's from solar installers, wind installers, that's... in Texas we call them wind cowboys, cowboy turbines.
Elena: First we're going to call them cowboys in Texas, so marketing is a big part of that because the more C-Suite or the more CEOs I speak to, as a business owner myself, I think it resonates when you have different voices in the room or on your team, you're going to get different diverse results and it's always that way. When I join a political candidate's team, I make sure that I bring other women with me. That's a promise I made to my mentors. Once I'm in boardroom meetings, that to smash the glass ceiling is that I make sure the door's held open for the next generation to come in or for women who just, at my age, who aren't sure how to go forward, so I'm a big champion of women and women in science and politics. I'm proud to say that I looked at half a million jobs I've created, 60% were filled by women.
Chelsea: Yeah, it's amazing.
Elena: I'm very proud of that.
Chelsea: As you should be. It's amazing. Some women don't have the same freedom and the same opportunity as women like you and me.
Chelsea: You are that beacon of hope for girls who might not be allowed to get into sciences or might have to stay home or many different life choices behind that, but you're just so wonderful and graceful and doing many things that many women would never think they could do.
Elena: Yeah, there's a quote. "Secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." That's a lot. I don't know where that's come from in me, but it's always moving forward and I know that's... if I can help others move forward on their journeys to get unstuck, whatever that looks like, that's something I really hope that happens for everyone, regardless of your upbringing, your background, your experiences, to continue to move forward. I'm just, I'm hopeful. Again, though, I recognize my privilege as a white woman. Right?
Elena: Especially a white woman in the US. Privilege becomes responsibility and that is to bring others, especially women of colour, with me and to make sure when I'm speaking on panels that if there's not a woman of colour on the panel, that I ask, have they been asked and if they haven't been asked, depending on if I'm speaking about politics or science or talking about survivors of sexual assault, to make sure I do my research and have someone in the wings waiting if that's possible.
Chelsea: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What advice would you give younger girls starting out or looking to transition similar to the advice that you received?
Elena: I think that for women who are wanting to change careers, and I think this is at a time right now, too, where we're at, a lot of people are working remotely and I think it's a time to try some classes, some online classes, but not be afraid to mentor, to get mentors, too. Also, the importance or recognition of our work and never to underestimate the power of recognition.
Elena: I finished my wind turbine information, I finished the project, and I took a flight to Greece to see some family. On my way back I went through Italy and I took an Italia flight. There was a... World Cup soccer was going on and I played professional soccer, as did my dad, and I wanted to know what the score was. I was annoying, I think... well, I was just annoying the flight attendant, who said I wasn't, but said, "What can I do?" I said, "I just want to know the score." She said, "You know the pilots are curious, who's this woman who's interested in the score of a soccer game." I went through the cockpit and there was a plume of smoke, they were smoking.
Chelsea: Oh, my gosh.
Elena: No judgment. I had said, "What's the score?" We talked about soccer and I said, "Oh, I'm getting my pilot's license," and they said, "Oh, that's great." "What's it like flying into Toronto?" I said... They said, rather, "It sounds quite easy," in their broken English and my broken Italian, I said, "There's this wind turbine that we just have to watch." I took a pause and they looked at me and they said, "Oh, you know something about this wind thing?" I said, "Yeah, it was an idea that..." They said, "No, no, no, this is yours. Right? This is something... you can't just... take a moment to reflect on it, not too long, but take a moment to... we're recognizing it. We talk about it all the time up here as pilots and it's a beautiful thing that you've achieved something so young in your career, so remember to take a moment to pause, reflect, and recognize your efforts and move on, but don't ever forget. It's important to recognize that in others as well."
Back to your question, with women who are looking at their careers or ask them the stories of where they are, why they are today, and if someone is in politics or wants to get into politics, ask for mentors. Go onto LinkedIn or ask friends of friends. Never be afraid. I mean, the worst thing is something... someone could say no, or I don't have the time, and really, if that's the worst thing, why aren't we doing it more?
Chelsea: Yeah. I love that. Very good question. I'd love to talk to you a little bit about your experience as a Canadian navigating and leading US politics. How did that happen? How did you first get into US politics?
Elena: Well, that's a good question. After the wind project and working in Canadian politics, I had some friends in LA and I was doing some work here in LA for Aveda, which is a natural company for hair and things like that, so I did some interesting projects as a model. I was told there weren't a lot of women in science in LA. I thought, "Really?" I just, I thought... LA to me was just some place I went surfing and I just had this very myopic view of what California was. I was working at a bipartisan lobbying firm in downtown LA. There was people who were democrats, republicans, independents, and got along well.
I guess just asking, right, and I think that's kind of the fearlessness was I asked people. I mean, I worked in DC just asking people how I could, with my background in Canadian politics, which I went to New York and then DC and meeting people, going to conventions, so I think it was just me keeping to ask. I have some friends I've known for a long time, like Bob Ray is a great friend and I'm very proud of his new appointment. I knew him back in the 90s. That was so long ago, but he was always someone who would say, "Oh, I'm at this law firm. I think you should connect with this lawyer who's doing this."
It was always asking people, never being afraid to grow and use the ability to build up my experience. With my New York, DC and LA, I also noticed that at the bipartisan law firm in LA, there weren't any women, so that's where I also was like, "Okay, where are the women here, again."
Elena: It was the intersection again of science and politics because I realized that a lot of politicians don't have a science background, so how I could create a platform that was in layman's terms and how people could easily explain climate change without getting into the 400 parts per million or people would lose an audience in two seconds type of thing. How to bring people in and how to realize whether it's on climate change, whether it's privilege, and just be able to have these conversations and dialogue, which again, goes back to my upbringing of 13 aunts and uncles at a big table eating different kinds of food, with different opinions, but being able to respect and hear what everyone has to say. I think that's where the dialogue continues. That's why I think it's so important to continue having the dialogue.
Chelsea: I mean, were you nervous entering the room as this blonde bombshell Canadian in a room full of men to probably be underestimated because men are constant... I mean, I don't want to say that on record, but-
Chelsea: ... that must have been a little intimidating.
Elena: Oh. Oh, yeah. You just evoked a memory of mine that I had when I worked on a school bond project and I was the senior sustainability director. I was in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars, so as the sustainability director. I remember walking in and the way the room in downtown LA was a hundred people and it was all eyes on me. I mean, back then, I had a Blackberry, and I was just pretending to text no one.
Elena: I was just sweating, and I went down, and I excused myself to go to the washroom and just take a couple of deep breaths, which I think are so important on many things, and just do some positive affirmations. Just, I've got this, I've got this, and to go back. Oh, yes, I mean, I've been nervous, oh, very nervous.
Chelsea: You work with very high-profile politicians. I don't know if we can say who on here, but we can say, I think, presidential candidates.
Chelsea: I know you do advise them on their renewable energy policy.
Chelsea: Do you also bring forward anything to do with safety for women, rape culture, the Me Too Movement?
Elena: Yes. There's still campaign life, going on the road, I mean, it's very different. In the US, this is going to be the first time there's the Democratic National Convention's going to be virtual, so it's a very different feeling. In the US right now, I didn't want to be labeled, that's Elena, the scientist who's also the rape survivor. I thought why not? More and more candidates were sexual assault survivors, and this is exactly the reason I became a commissioner was to make Santa Monica a safer place for women and girls. It's everything to do with being a sexual assault survivor.
Sometimes, at first, I was like, do I put that on a cover letter about who I am? Then, I thought, yes, I do and it's very telling. Some campaigns will help and excited to have me onboard and some will not. I'm not ashamed of that, of that, my past, because that, again, had nothing to do with me and that's, again, I think leading the way as someone... when I'm hiring younger people as well in different generations, is that if I lead with I'm a survivor, they know that I'm going to be open to be speaking about things as opposed to hiding things.
Chelsea: What advice would you give for other survivors who might be listening to you speaking right now?
Elena: Sure, sure. I think for me personally, I saw my life change dramatically when I started speaking publicly about what happened to me. I mean, depending on who your parents, if your family, your chosen family, have conversations with them. I mean, there's so much healing and our body holds onto trauma. I remember this one situation when I went back to Queen's to talk about a degree that I needed to get. I went with my father and... it's like an out of body experience when they started talking about what happened to me. I couldn't finish one the classes because I needed to be on campus, and I didn't want to. I couldn't... well, I wanted to, I just couldn't.
I thought I had a speech all ready and I remember with my dad in the room and just seeing the dean and the body of Queen's University and I just... I just said, "I just wanted to go to school," and it was hard having my dad in the room because I felt I had somehow disappointed him. I started to cry immensely. It was this cry of trauma leaving my body, actually, so when I went into another room, my dad and I talked. He said, "Elena, this is not your fault and I'm so sorry I couldn't help you." I guess, my thing in saying this was keeping silent, keeping a secret is not healthy.
I mean, that day I remember how I got my degree and Queen's and was just so much healing for everyone, and for my body. I just, I started... trauma manifests in different ways, so I think for survivors, depending on where you are, and I know now with COVID that many survivors are home and maybe their home is not safe for them. Unfortunately, sexually violence and domestic violence have gone up during COVID. I don't know if that's really spoken about. Every survivor's journey is different. For me, speaking publicly was so healing for me, for my family, and to find pure joy.
Chelsea: It was quite a while before you talked openly about it, wasn't it?
Elena: Yes. Yes, and there's typical things, like I mean, I am a natural blonde, maybe a sandy blonde, but I died my hair black, I wore makeup, a lot of makeup. I just didn't want to be seen or I wanted to be seen as some different.
Elena: Yeah, so it was years, years after to speak publicly because there was shame, and I hadn't tapped into that bit for me. I didn't tell my parents because... my dad the truth because I thought, yeah, they somehow would think less of me, so for any survivor, I would say, "I understand those feelings very well and I hear you and I support you, whatever that journey looks like for you, but there is healing and there are resources available. If you're in a relationship that your partner does not believe you or does not support you, that's not the relationship for you. A person in a relationship that's healthy will hear all of you and accept all of you and understand that trauma happens to you, not because of you."
Chelsea: With I could give you a big hug right now. We've talked about how sometimes fear is the root of why we don't do something, why we don't raise our hand, why we don't feel confident to share an opinion or a joke or a life experience. How do you move through that fear?
Elena: Sure. There's gratitude practices and there's affirmations, there's positive affirmations in the morning and at first I think I thought it was a very like, like an Oprah like I don't need to do this, I don't know if it really works, but there is a science to positive affirmations to set your day and even if it's waking up a half hour earlier before working out and just sitting in silence or maybe it's the end of your day for you or whomever. It's actually writing things you're grateful for or what are your superpowers and your affirmation. It really sets, in the morning, it sets the tone for the day.
There's been, The Science of Wellbeing, back to that class at Yale, there's a lot of studies about how that really does work. Besides working out, listening to music, and saying you are, but it's if you ever get filled with doubt, sometimes I will work out or I will go for a run wearing a mask or I'll go for a bike ride and listen to empowering things because things will change and I think to find strength within. If you're having an off day, I think to reach out to friends or reach out to colleagues or people who trust. I think there's the imposter syndrome, which women have a lot more than men, and not all, I will say, but I think it's we just need to take up space and be all right with that. It's a daily practice, I would say.
Chelsea: I guess to round up our call, what advice would you give women wanting to enter into a career in STEM?
Elena: I think that with women it's interesting because women who I've mentored have always said, "I only have a masters," or I only have this, or I only have that. Get the word, I only, out of your-
Elena: You don't need to have five degrees to do that and if there's something you want to get into STEM or STEAM or you want to be a woman in politics, it's ask, find people on LinkedIn or people in your spheres who have that career that you'd like to emulate. Why not? Don't hesitate to contact people. More people are open than you think they would be.
Chelsea: Yep. The worst they can say is no. I mean, hopefully-
Chelsea: ... they don't but that's not so scary and I think we've built it up to be very intimidating.
Elena: Right. You probably have your resume out to maybe 20 people, maybe one person says yes, but it's... that's 19 no's or a hundred no's. Just keep trying. You can use social media for good. I strongly believe that. Check out people's profiles you like, check out what they're doing, where they're speaking, or use certain tags, women's conferences, and see if you're a student or if you've lost your job, I think it's your attitude first. Be a Wonder Woman or be a superhero with your energy and use your energy to uplift people.
Chelsea: I'd love to know what are your hopes and your dreams?
Elena: Yes, well, so I've been advising with regards to Joe Biden and I, as a democrat, I really hope for a good result in November in getting people out to vote, but it's also never taking one's vote for granted or anyone's vote for granted. It's what... that there's a policy or that there's a platform for people to get involved in and getting people excited about. It's really hard, too, because people on the left or the right. I have friends who are republicans, they're not Trump supporters, but who I talk to and it's, I think again goes back to the dialogue of conversations, so of let's have more conversation about where you come from and respecting that. I'm excited to work on the campaign and see where it goes and finding joy where it is.
Chelsea: Oh, my gosh.
Elena: I've had a lot of fun.
Chelsea: That's so exciting. Oh, Elena, I can't thank you enough for making the time to talk with me. Thank you so much and good luck with the election. We'll be watching.
Elena: It's been a pleasure, Chelsea, thank you.
Chelsea: Thank you so much for joining us for this incredible conversation with Elena Christopoulos and thank you for listening to The Millie Podcast. Please join me back here in two weeks' time for our next conversation with Social Enterprise co-founders, Jacqueline Sofia and Noora Sharrab of Sitti Soap. If you enjoy listening to this podcast, please hit subscribe, share with your friends, and visit us a Millie.ca.