-Story by Toby Tannas Photography by Darren Hull
Renee Merrifield Wasylyk and I meet on a brisk Saturday afternoon. She’s at home, so it’s not the power-suit-clad executive with that signature red lipstick who greets me; it’s a relaxed, makeup free, softer version of Renee who pours two glasses of VQA and invites me to her kitchen table.
This is home base for a busy, blended family of eight: Renee, her fiance Carlos, the five (mostly grown) children between them that come and go, and the adorable hound, Winston.
I let Renee know my intention is not to write an article about her political aspirations, but as we talk and the conversation flows freely, I realize her passion for being a voice and bringing people together at the family, business and political levels is truly who she is at her core. We can’t “not” talk about it.
“Honestly, I love it. I don’t love politicking, politics or shenanigans, but I love democracy,” she says, leaning forward in her chair. “I love the conversation, contrary ideas that have to be shared in order to figure out the consensus.”
Renee is seeking the Conservative nomination in the federal riding of Kelowna-Lake Country. She doesn’t see herself as a politician; she prefers the word conduit.
“I am simply someone who can get people to the table. I’m not the one doing anything other than putting the pieces together.”
Renee has been putting pieces together and asking the big questions since she was a child.
“At eight years old I asked my dad why there were no female presidents and he told me, ‘honey, you can be the first female president of the United States of America.’” She chuckles at the memory, adding that this could never be the case as a Canadian citizen; however, the seed was planted.
“If I look back, that was one of the two moments in my life that told me it’s okay to be a change-maker.”
The other inspiration came from a Rabbi professor at Concordia University. (Renee holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and a Master of Theology)
“He said, ‘Renee, God is so big, He is not afraid of your questions, but also don’t be afraid when He asks you to change the world.’”
Renee has been enacting change, most notably on the Kelowna development scene, since she started Troika Developments in 1998. Based on her degrees and first career job as a Celebrative Arts Ministry Associate at Trinity Baptist Church, development wasn’t the obvious choice. It became a necessary choice as Renee faced the reality of financially supporting a young and growing family.
“I started working for a developer. I negotiated a land assembly. Then I started my own consultation business. It was the school of hard knocks, just learning on the go.”
After just two and a half years of consulting on land assemblies, acquisitions, permits and contracts for other developers, Renee was ready to launch Troika — and she most definitely made waves.
“When I launched, I had three projects. A 56-unit townhome development, a 44-unit apartment block and a mixed-use commercial site that I launched all at once,” she says, shaking her head. “I would never do it like that again, but it really put me on the map. Other developers where like, ‘Who is she? Who does she think she is?’”
Renee says “she” is simply someone who listened to people who knew more than her; someone who accepted help when it was offered and someone who still lives by those principles today.
“I remember being overwhelmed by the kindness. If I was doing it wrong, they’d say, ‘Renee, you should do it this way.’ My network became my teachers and I still look at it that way.”
With 21 years in business under her belt and many business accolades, including Entrepreneur of the Year – Pacific Region, Most Influential Business Woman of the Year – BC, and two appearances on Canada’s list of the Top 100 Most Powerful Woman, Renee is ready to step into a new role.
“When [Conservative Party Leader] Andrew Scheer came and asked me to run, that to me was an invitation to the table. So now I have an invitation to be able to affect change and that’s a pretty powerful invitation. I will also get to bring my community to a greater standing on the national stage. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”
As of press time, no date for the Conservative nomination has been set, but Renee is actively talking to the people in her community as if she’s already representing them and loving every minute of it.
“Should I win the nomination, and you don’t do this because you think you’re going to lose” she adds, “I want to make sure the right people are part of the conversation. I’m meeting all these farmers, for example. My mind is blown — they have incredible stories and incredible knowledge. They should be at the table telling their story and allowing me to make it easier to build our economy with their businesses.”
Renee’s family supports her decision to pursue the nomination. She smiles from ear to ear when I bring up her children. I wonder aloud what someone who expects so much of herself might expect from her kids.
“I have high expectations for them, but I’m not proud of them when they achieve something. I’m proud of them when they work hard, when they put in effort. I’m proud of them because of what they give to what they care about.”
When it comes to pride, Renee’s fiance, Carlos, is brimming with it. The importance of that support is not lost on her.
“That is sometimes a difficult thing for a man to be, but when you find the man who is happy to be your champion, cheerleader, lover and friend — you hold on to him tightly and you will do the same for him.”
Carlos appears as if on cue. Our time is almost up as Renee has another function to attend. As I swallow the last of my wine and feel grateful that I am going home to enjoy a quiet night “in,” Renee seems just as enthusiastic about her night “out.” An opportunity to meet more people, to listen as they share their stories and — as that cherished Rabbi professor told her all those years ago — to accept a role that may one day “change the world.”