Vancouver Board of Trade chair talks money, police, philanthropy and Ellen DeGeneres

One of Vancouver's most influential women talks to VO about business leadership, public safety and success.

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“But, whatever I can do to help the police force in Vancouver... (I wanted) to serve. It would be fantastic to make that significant difference every single day in peoples' lives. Could you imagine? They have that opportunity every day, of course as we know, at extreme, great risk.”
 
I ask about last year's Stanley Cup hockey riots, which damaged hundreds of businesses she represents.
 
“Personally, I'll say very strongly that I felt great compassion for the police,” she said. “It was complete instability that they faced.
 
“No human should have to do that. It's just incredible day in and day out what these men and women do getting out of bed every day to protect us and serve us. They were obviously instructed to show great restraint. The riot was shut down in three hours – that's incredible, considering how many people came so quickly into the downtown core.”
 
There are few spa chain owners or hoteliers who have as keen a personal interest in the police as Lisogar-Cocchia, who becomes animated – even passionate – when talking about public safety, service and philanthropy. But her role-model comes from a different world – the world of television.

Meeting Ellen DeGeneres

That hero is Ellen DeGeneres – acclaimed U.S. talk show host, prominent advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and volunteer for special needs children and animals. When DeGeneres visited Vancouver last year, Lisogar-Cocchia interviewed her on-stage in Rogers Arena, and the two shared a tearful moment backstage discussing their shared charitable causes.
 
“She cares a lot about special needs – it's both of our passions,” Lisogar-Cocchia recalled. “She makes you laugh, cry, think.
 
“She would be my top person in the world that I would want to interview if I could have anybody. She's been a complete trailblazer for our generation for the century to come in regards to accepting people regardless of their differences.”
 
Part of what DeGeneres inspired in the VBOT chair is her message of acceptance of diversity.
 
“We absolutely – in our society, in this day and age – should accept everybody for who they are, the way they were born,” she said. “She ends every show with, 'Be kind to one another.'
 
“What a message! I like doing a random act of kindness every day – staying an extra 30 seconds to hold a door for someone.”
 
She showed me around her sparse office, which overlooks Burrard Street with large tinted windows. The floor is carpeted, white, and perfectly clean. Her desk is nearly empty – featuring only two plain sheets of printed notes for our interview – to which she never refers, in the end. The conversation flowed freely and easily. She laughed often, maintained eye-contact, and shared personal stories.
 
One of them is how her own father, Roy Lisogar – owner of the hotel she inherited – fired her. She had gone behind his back, as an 18-year old restaurant worker, and redesigned the menus with the chef ("at great expense," she admits). She went home crying to her mother, who comforted her, but convinced her to sleep it off and re-apply for her job. Sure enough, the next day she drafted a curriculum vitae and approached her father behind his desk. She got the job.
 
“I did not make that mistake again,” she laughed. “It was about not using the company's money without permission.

Lessons for business success

“Be passionate about what you choose to do. You're going to spend more time on that than your own family. Never give up. Set yourself realistic goals – they can be lofty goals. I think it's the persistence factor that's most important.”

This trademark persistence lies behind the “serendipitous” turn of events through which Lisogar-Cocchia founded a women's golf tournament which has raised $2.9 million for B.C. special needs children's charities. In 1987, her father was to participate in a charitable golf tournament but suffered a stroke.

His daughter stepped into fill his shoes. There was one problem: she was barred from entering the golf course because it was a men-only tournament.
 
“I thought it was funny, but knew it wasn't right,” she recalled. “So I just grabbed a bunch of ladies – I phoned them.
 
“Well, you'd never guess what – (Our tournament)'s been a smashing success. Twenty-five years ago things were very different for female executives!”
 
Has the corporate world actually changed much for women in the last few decades? After all, the faces around board tables and governments are still largely white and male – despite much talk about workplace equality, diversity, and new opportunities, barriers remain.
 
“I speak to different women at really high levels,” she said. “We don't actually acknowledge and pay attention to (the barriers).
 
“If you were to encounter a challenge, frankly, the only thing to do is ignore it, work hard, and move on.”
 
As she glanced out the window facing downtown Vancouver – its bank towers, condominiums and offices jutting skyward – Lisogar-Cocchia pauses as I inquire about her philanthropy and business awards. Setting the award in her hand down, she glanced at the northernmost wall of her spartan workspace – to a photo of her family.

There's something more to her story that is essential to add, it seemed.
 
“My husband is my partner in crime for everything,” she said of Sergio Cocchia. “He's my business partner. He's a co-founder of the spa as well.
 
“You wouldn't know it – because he's a big, rough, handsome Italian guy with a beard, six-foot-two – but he and I had been doing special needs fundraising when we met," she said.  

"It's just something that we've been raised with. It's a great quality to pass onto the next generation.”

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