She’s lived here for just five years, but Evelyn Ackah is already the ultimate Albertan
Next Up: Practice Makes Perfect
by Marzena Czarnecka
Some Albertans are born. Some are transplanted or transformed. And some people are just meant to be Albertans, no matter where their life begins. Evelyn Ackah is one of these.
Photograph Bryce Meyer
You might not think so to look at her, because there’s nothing stereotypically oil patch – or Cowtown – about Ackah, whose specialized business immigration law practice is about to celebrate its second birthday with yet another expansion. Born in Ghana, raised in Vancouver and trained in Toronto, Ackah landed in Calgary in 2008, the worst of times for the oil patch and global financial markets. During the four years she’s been in the city, she abandoned a “sure-thing” job for two “jump-off-the-cliff” startup efforts, grabbed the spotlight in Avenue’s Top 40 Calgarians Under 40, became one of the faces of Calgary Economic Development’s Be Part of the Energy campaign and added two children to her family through two separate international adoptions.
Her story starts with her parents’ decision in 1976 to immigrate to Canada, with the express purpose “to create opportunities”for their daughter. She hasn’t missed one since. After a political science degree from Simon Fraser University and a bachelor of laws from UBC, she articled on Bay Street and then cut her legal teeth with, among others, the attempt by global accounting firm Ernst & Young to add legal services to their array of offerings.
It was an opportunity fraught with risk, as virtually all lawyers lured to E&Y were finding out by early 2000. “It became quite apparent in the first year that I wasn’t going to get great corporate work because of the conflict [inherent in the business model],” Ackah says. As she was making the decision to leave the firm to pursue other opportunities,the firm made her a counter-offer, asking her to join its business immigration practice, which was growing quickly despite the constraints of the multidisciplinary partnership.
She did, and the course of the rest of her career was set. She found a legal niche that thrilled her and in which she thrived.
But it wasn’t quite the right platform.
“Being a lawyer in an accounting firm has its pros and cons,” Ackah says diplomatically. Translation: great backroom support but not a lot of flexibility or opportunity to exercise entrepreneurial – or, until one racks up the seniority, leadership – muscles. And so, in 2006, she seized the opportunity to sell national law firm Gowling Lafleur Henderson on the fact that she had what it took to rebuild that firm’s business immigration practice, weakened by departures in the senior ranks. They bought it, and she delivered on her promise, substantially expanding their business in that area.
For another national law firm looking to bolster its business immigration practice, Fraser Milner Casgrain, that was enough to lure Ackah to Calgary to head up its business immigration practice as partner. Ackah jumped at the chance, and landed in Calgary in July 2008, with the Calgary Stampede in full swing and the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy two months away.
She thought she “knew” Calgary before – she had travelled to the city frequently when she was with E&Y – but she really “learned” it that year, both by watching in awe how (and how much) business development got done during the raucous Stampede parties and even more by witnessing how the oil patch and Alberta dealt with the blows dealt to it by the financial crisis. “There is so much sophistication here,” she says. “Everything is possible.” That includes starting your own law firm while the world looks like it’s coming to an end, which is how Ackah coped with the fallout from the financial crisis. She sacrificed the security offered by FMC to form a boutique human resources firm called Spectrum HR Law in 2009 with a cohort of colleagues. A little more than a year later, she decided to take on still more risk by striking out on her own and opening the doors to Ackah Business Immigration Law on December 1, 2010.
Why? Her father taught her to take risks and seize opportunities. Her Alberta-based clientele taught her she was meant to be an entrepreneur. “I don’t think I would have my own law firm if I was in Toronto,” she says. Opportunity attracted her to Alberta – the opportunity to chart her own path, on her own terms – and a business and cultural environment that celebrates what it is that is keeping her here. “Part of my motivation for striking out on my own was because I wanted to be a parent as well as a business owner,” she says. “To work hard, but with the flexibility and the balance you need to have a great, family-focused lifestyle.” In the summer of 2011, she adopted her son, then a week old, from the U.S. In the fall of 2012, she successfully finalized the adoption of baby girl from her birth country of Ghana. “You wait for something and it never rains but pours,” Ackah says. “I spent years trying to adopt from Ghana, and it didn’t work out, and so I moved to focusing on the U.S. I was so lucky to get him – and then almost immediately got the call from Ghana about her.”
On the personal front, 2013 is going to be the year of the “twiblings,” as the children, who are four months apart in age, are known. Professionally, it looks to be a year of expansion. The firm launched in Vancouver and Calgary almost simultaneously, and it may have an Edmonton office in its future.
Is it tough being the black woman lawyer in Calgary, a minority of a minority? Albertans rarely ask, but her West Coast and Bay Street friends are often tempted. Her answer is what makes Ackah an Albertan by choice.“Yeah, I may be the only person of colour in a boardroom or at a conference. That is not a negative.
That means I am memorable. And they’ll remember me also for the passion I have for what I do.” Carpe diem.