When Cynthia Dorrington was recently named Chair of the 1,600 member Halifax Chamber of Commerce she called her father in New Glasgow to say thanks.
The first African Nova Scotian named to the position, she thought it was only fitting to call New Glasgow’s first African American member of town council, Francis Dorrington.
“I called Dad and thanked him for taking that first step. I don’t know if I’d be here without it.”
One of Francis and Frances Dorrington’s six children, she learned the importance of volunteering at home on the Vale Road.
“That came from both my mother and father. They pitched in with everything and expected us to as well so we were volunteering as teenagers. We learned early it is rewarding and needed.”
She also picked up a few lessons on the campaign trail with her father who spent 21 years on council.
“I learned to listen to people, to understand their problems and point of view. I also learned some people aren’t going to like you and you just have to accept that.”
Dorrington left New Glasgow at 18 to go to university with plans for university and a job. She joined Maritime Telephone and Telegraph at a time when people still thought jobs could last a lifetime.
“After I’d been there a while specialized retraining was offered to just 25 employees and I was chosen as the company wanted to augment its IT division. In the beginning, not one of us knew IT but I learned and went on to oversee programs and become a system administrator. It was a field of very few women at the time.”
It was also a workplace where employees were encouraged to be involved in the community and Dorrington welcomed that.
“I was involved with the Halifax Cornwallis Progress Club for a long time. I was very involved with Phoenix Youth Programs for years and that kind of work is close to my heart.”
In 2001 both she and her sister Cassandra lost their jobs to downsizing. They agreed to start a business – Vale & Associates, named for their old New Glasgow neighbourhood.
“Our deal was to put everything we had in for a year and then we’d see whether this was what we wanted to do. It was frightening because we knew we’d only be able to eat what we could make.”
Cassandra left to become CEO of a national not-for-profit after a few years but Dorrington still runs the human resources consulting company.
“In the early days, it was contacts we made through our volunteer work that kept us going. We’d do a job and word of mouth would bring us another job.”
A new level of success came when they secured some international work in Ghana.
“I went on a trade mission to the Caribbean that really opened my eyes to opportunities. Culture helped, no doubt about it. We were able to establish a level of trust early on and we worked from there, listening and being careful as we moved ahead.”
In her international work, Dorrington quickly learned the value of making local partnerships.
“We want a piece of the business but we don’t need the whole pie. It has worked better for us to partner with someone who is on location, someone who knows local politics and nuances.”
She credits her involvement with the Greater Halifax Partnership and the Black Business Initiative with broadening her skills and building her confidence.
“I was on the BBI board for seven years and am just finishing up as chair. I became involved with the chamber because Rustum Southwell, CEO of BBI, was on the chamber’s nominating committee and he put my name forward.”
She agreed to chair the chamber’s human resources and governance committee.
“I thought it was work I could do and I might have a new perspective to offer. These are the same reasons I agreed to be chamber chair.”
Dorrington points out her first responsibility is to further the goals of the chamber but she admits she has some personal goals as well.
“If I can reach out to people who don’t belong to the chamber and build bridges and bring them to an intersection where things can happen, that’s what I want to do. I’d like to see the chamber become more diverse, to bring in businesses that represent the true level of diversity we have in Halifax.”
She is also a strong supporter of not-for-profits.
“The not-for-profits really struggle in today’s society because they can't market as businesses do but we need all sectors if we’re going to have the strongest possible business community.”
As an African American woman, Dorrington knows she is pioneering new ground.
“Black women have been in Nova Scotia for 400 years so it funny to think it is new ground but it is. I’m here because of the guidance and support of friends and relatives through the years and I want to extend the same support to others. We all need people in our corners.”
Dorrington married the same year she started her own businesses and became step mother to three children.
“I’ve just become a grandmother and I couldn’t be happier about it.”