PPE made for Canadians, by Canadians
An interview with 2002 Frank H. Sobey Award winner Laurie-Ann Willett BComm’04 and her exciting contribution to Canada’s COVID-19 strategy.
Laurie-Ann Willett is Senior Legal Counsel for Joseph Ribkoff Inc., one of Canada’s most longstanding and internationally recognized women’s clothing designers, manufacturers, and wholesalers. Like many companies, Joseph Ribkoff turned its attention to meeting the needs of frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When the pandemic hit, I saw different companies stepping up to the plate,” explains Laurie-Ann. “We make clothing, and I went to the executive team and asked, ‘What can we do?’ It turned out the federal and provincial governments were looking for PPE [personal protective equipment] made by Canadians for Canadians.”
Laurie-Ann and her colleagues got to work figuring out how to make medical gowns. “We put a proposal together and the federal government accepted it.” Many late-night phone calls later, Laurie-Ann is pretty much a gown expert. “We have to make sure the quality is on point, the fabric supplier is not late, and we have the staff to make the gowns – they have to be Canadian-made.”
The project team includes about a dozen people led by the VP of Operations. “I’m the person who makes sure there are no legal, contractual, or regulatory issues,” says Laurie-Ann. “Gowns are considered a medical device, so we need a licence from Health Canada to manufacture them. There’s a lot of paperwork and policy to consider. I’m responsible for all this, plus my day job!”
Laurie-Ann is very proud of what she and her colleagues have accomplished. “Joseph Ribkoff is a Canadian brand that’s been around for more than 60 years. We had to pivot. We still have to produce clothing and sell lines, so it’s almost like two businesses.”
Now based in Montréal, Laurie-Ann is a long way from her youth in the tiny town of Cascapédia, Québec. She graduated on the honour roll from Saint Mary’s in 2004 with a Bachelor of Commerce and certificates in HR Management and French, then earned a law degree in both common and civil law (with distinction) from McGill in 2009. She joined Joseph Ribkoff in July of 2019.
She also has a message for prospective students. “Saint Mary’s is a real gem. If students are open and receptive and willing to receive feedback, the profs are there to do that. That’s why I was so successful at Saint Mary’s. I succeed when I have positive validation. SMU provided the greenhouse for my success.”
“The Frank H. Sobey Scholarship was a reward for my hard work,” Laurie-Ann continues. “To have something like this attached to my name made me feel like Nova Scotia accepted me and Saint Mary’s accepted me. Thank you for not only helping me financially, but helping me feel like I belonged.”