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Alumni Spotlight: Anika Holder (BA '98)

Alumni Spotlight: Anika Holder (BA '98)

While for many, the topics of equity, diversity, and inclusion have only recently been at the forefront of discussions, for Anika Holder (BA ’98) these principles – creating safe, diverse, and inclusive spaces for all and challenging the norm – have always been a priority. Anika has used these beliefs as a foundation for what has become a long and successful career in the Human Resources field where she is currently the Vice President, Human Resources for Penguin Random House Canada. 

Why did you decide to pursue a degree from York and why Sociology? 

I decided to study at York because it was important for me to stay near home for several reasons. Coming from a single-parent family I had to pay for my own education, so it had to be close to affordable [moreso] than going out of province. I also wanted to go to an institution that felt like a community. And I was drawn to the programs York offered. I originally started off as a double major (African studies and Sociology) and ended up focusing on Sociology. 

Sociology because coming out of high school I knew I liked Social Sciences but I didn’t know exactly where that could take me. I was heavily involved with the Toronto District School Board in trying to get them to de-stream and helping create networks for Black students. I thought I was going to teach or do something in what we now call anti-racism, diversity, and inclusion.  

What has your career trajectory been like since graduation? 

After York I took the post-diploma Human Resources course at Seneca. Human Resources merged all my areas of interest without having to pursue another degree – because I needed to get to work.  

My first job was with a consulting engineering company – a job I stayed in for 11 years. It fit all the things I had in my early vision and was such a great opportunity because I was able to do a lot early in my career. After that I moved on to Metrolinx as an Organizational and Development Consultant. That role was more cultural focused; learning and development; and change management. Then I moved into more of an arts and culture role, which I now realize tends to be where my interest is, at TVO. I was Director of Organizational Development and my role focused heavily on shifting the organizational culture and supporting the shift to digital.  

Now I’m at Penguin Random House Canada as the Vice President of Human Resources. It’s been a long road.  

As the VP of HR, what are some of your priorities and how do you incorporate equity, diversity, and inclusion into it? 

When I first met Kristin Cochrane (CEO Penguin Random House Canada) we spoke a lot about our values and what was important to us, and we both landed on EDI.  

Since then, almost 3.5 years ago, we’ve focused on implementing more strategic and inclusive recruitment practices; we are working to demystify publishing and eliminate barriers to entry into the company and industry—our paid 6-month internship program is one such example. And we are working to establish a greater sense of belonging, psychological safety and professional mobility and growth for our colleagues who have lived experiences of being racialized and marginalized. There’s a lot of work to be done, it will be a journey and we’re committed to making real change now and into the future. 

We also centre a lot of our thinking and decisions around people first. Well-being, mental and holistic well-being, is something that we focus on. The employee experience, day-to-day, is really important to me as well. Daily, I swing between big picture, execution, and connecting one-on-one with people. 

As a Black female in a key leadership role at one of Canada’s largest publishers – do you feel any pressure or added responsibility? 

I feel a strong sense of responsibility to bring my full self to what I do — that includes my experience as a human, Black person, a woman, mother, child of Trinidadian parents, colleague. It’s not always easy and I don’t expect it to be, yet it is a way of being that’s most important to me at this point in my life. The fact that I get to approach my work in this way is very empowering. I recognize for some (including myself) expectations are high for the changes I can influence in the company in many areas, but most urgently when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

"This particular work comes with an urgency that is in my bones and most often I am hardest on myself -- because I understand the pain of wanting to belong, have connection and feel valued."

This particular work comes with an urgency that is in my bones and most often I am hardest on myself — because I understand the pain of wanting to belong, have connection and feel valued.

I am driven by the accomplishments we’ve been able to make as a company and potentially to the broader industry. 

You are a mentor in the Advancing Black Students Program – which provides mentorship for Black LA&PS students in their third or fourth year – why did you want to be involved in this program? 

Prior to the Advancing Black Students program, I spent several years mentoring anyone who needed it, but a few years ago I noticed that the people who readily had access to me also frequently didn’t look like me or have similar lived experiences. So, I thought maybe my alma mater could help. I connected with York as they were just beginning to work on this program. It launched in October 2021, and I now have three mentees.  

You seem very passionate about mentorship – particularly to Black youth – where does that stem from? 

Throughout my career, receiving mentorship has been a journey. The two mentors I did have, both great people, both white, shared their experience and insights generously, but fundamentally were so unaware of their privilege and closed to the impacts of my lived experience that their guidance was often dismissive and hurtful or at minimum of no help when it came to navigating some crucial and day-to-day systemic issues I was experiencing professionally.  

And back when I was in high school, I had a guidance counsellor who recommended that I (an honour student) take general courses for no logical reason at all. He just thought it would be easier. That year, my grades plummeted. In my senior year, he told me that I wasn’t cut out for university. I don’t believe I’d be here today if it wasn’t for the direction and championing I received from my high school Vice Principal, a Black woman, Mrs. Bernice Blackman, and my parents. She (along with my parents) provided guidance and a vision of what was possible for me. She was the first Black woman I had seen who was in a professional position of authority and I haven’t come by many since. The second was a visiting professor I had for an African Studies course while in my first year at York. I had access to her for just one semester but she ‘saw me’ and that experience has stayed with me.  

I want to be part of a future where Black students and young professionals can easily access mentors that look like them, have similar lived experiences, see examples of success and create a bigger vision for themselves.

“I want to be part of a future where Black students and young professionals can easily access mentors that look like them, have similar lived experiences, see examples of success and create a bigger vision for themselves.”

Do you have any advice for students about to embark on the next chapter of their lives? 

I would say, your education is a foundation but don’t let it be the thing that prevents you from having a broader vision for yourself. Write it down. Be specific and use the foundation of your education to get you there. Education is your lever. And don’t shy away from asking for help. Even if people haven’t volunteered their support, you never know who might be willing to help.