Profile by Jane Ledwell
"Commitment has been a powerful word in my life," says Jessie Inman. Commitment has taken Jessie Inman as far as Antarctica and full circle home. Inman began her career as an administrative assistant at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in 1976; last fall she returned as CEO.
Inman left PEI for the Discovery Train, a travelling museum on 14 railway cars, cementing her love of Canadian history - and of travel. Work with Canada Communications Group, consulting on Canada's presence outside Canada anywhere in the world, took her to the world's fair in Tsukuba, Japan, in 1985, cementing her commitment to communications. Her Ottawa-based work in communications, external affairs, trade, tourism, and industry broadened her to an international vision.
"To me, communication is everything," she says. What interests her most when she travels is "always the people." "You can't understand a place by just looking at it." She makes an effort to learn a little of the language wherever she goes, so she can directly connect with people. "Coming from Prince Edward Island, we say hello to whoever is standing beside usŠ I love talking to people and finding out what is their situation in life."
Much of her travel with Canada Communications was in North America and Europe. Moves through positions in External Affairs and International Trade and then Industry Canada led to overseas work further afield, and, recognizing opportunities for industry in South-East Asia, she went to the region for the first time in 1992.
She recalls, "I knew the first day that I wanted to move there." She chose Indonesia but was told it was the most difficult place to find a job; nevertheless, she immediately enrolled in language classes. "It took relentless commitment to get there," she remembers. "Friends would say, Jessie, you need a backup plan." She made none. After 21 months of persistence, she boarded a plane as Canada's Investment Advisor for Indonesia.
"It gets in your soul when you live there," she says, "Because you see the everyday." A planned two-year stay turned into 10 years and included work in the private sector, pursuit of a Master's degree from Maastricht, Amsterdam, and love and marriage with another lover of adventure travel, her "most incredible husband," Allan Hart.
Reflecting on her time in Indonesia, Inman says, "You get to see the povert every single day, in front of you and around youŠ In downtown Jakarta, it's like downtown anywhere, because the poverty is not out in front of the big buildings, the big skyscrapers; it's behind itŠ Then all of a sudden out from the side of the road or the side of the building" you come face to face with the developing world. She remembers one day being deeply moved at the sight of a "very, very old-looking man" who had "a huge cart of rice, in bare feet," struggling to cross a busy highway. "I just sat there and cried," she remembers. The memory leaves her wordless and still brings her to tears. "We was so poor, and he was working so hard to feed his family."
Convinced that her role was in "increasing prosperity" in the country, Inman moved from work as investment advisor to Indonesia into the private sector, ending up pursuing an opportunity with Palliser Furniture, mass-producing contemporary furniture in central Java. "There weren't that many foreign women working in central Java in I don't want to say it was a man's world - but, yeah - a man's world. (Indonesian culture is very much not a man's world, but it can appear that way on the surface)," she adds. There, she oversaw building a factory from the ground up, controlling the supply chain from tree to table, and creating training and employment opportunity for many Indonesian families. Soon, the company was shipping 150 forty-foot containers a month.
"It's good not to know what you can do," she says. "If you don't have the mindset that something is impossible, then it is possible."
Travel time included treks with her husband through East Africa, up the slopes of Kilimanjaro and to see mountain gorillas in Uganda; across Patagonia; even to the base camp at Mount Everest (having already been to the base camp at Anapurna).
Next in her career, she thought she was bound for Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam until a last-minute decision and three days' notice took her instead to Perth, Australia, to a gas-processing technology company. She loved working in the oil-and-gas industry - and it soon brought her back to Western Canada. Her work and especially her travel convinced her, "It's the world's biggest challenge: the balance between industrial growth and a fragile planet. And we only have one. We have to take care of it for future generations."
Finally last year, commitment called her home, to the Island of her birth and youth, to the Confederation Centre of the Arts, an institution she wants to be here for future generations.
"We drove from Calgary to PEI, so I could arrive the same way I left," she says, with a trace of romance. She has been delighted since returning to see "Charlottetown has changed and evolved into this gorgeous small cityŠ Charlottetown," she says, "has become magical."
At the centre of that magic, the Confederation Centre nonetheless faces challenges. "I didn't have the leisure that many CEO's take, to wait six months and see how things look," Inman says. "I think it is well known that we are operating at a deficitŠ and need to create revenues for artistic growth."
Her commitment now is "to get to a new place, where the Centre can grow again." The first controversy of her new tenure has been cuts to the orchestra - and orchestration - for "Anne of Green Gables - The Musical." She recently met face-to-face with some orchestra members, a positive experience. "I've talked to them, and I believe they know my objective that this iconic play stays on our mainstage," she says.
The most inspiring experience since her return has been the Christmas production of "The Sound of Music." "It warmed my heart to see that the community came together on that, not just to produce it, but to see it," she says. "We have this amazing building. We need to offer it to the community more than we do, because we have the talent, not just in PEI but in the whole country." She wants to see greater cooperation across the arts and culture communities of PEI. "I strongly believe we are too small to compete with each other. PEI has so much to offer."
As part of her vision, she says (referring to the Centre's "Get Centred" campaign for memberships outside the Centre), "I want everybody in here to be 'centred' on each other, and to serve each other for the betterment of this place and for the betterment of each other."
She says, with conviction, "I want to push [the Centre's] mandate for Canadian content. I would love to see a new era of artistic creativity at the Confederation CentreŠ That's our challenge, and I'm very much working on it alreadyŠ I believe we can take a new Canadian musical to this stage and have something truly outstanding happen that is truly Canadian and has global appeal."
As she looks forward, Inman looks also to the past: "The Confederation Centre is Canada's national memorial to the Fathers of ConfederationŠ The piece we need to put forward is the national memorial partŠ That's the essence of who we are and what we stand for, and we have to make sure that heritage is embedded in all our thinking and programming." This she wants to communicate to Canada, and well beyond. "My dream is to make sure that every Canadian is well-versed in what the Confederation Centre of the Arts really stands for."
When she and her husband decided to travel to Antarctica, they opted for the most difficult means to cross the dangerous Drake Passage: a small sailboat. But the boat's name was "Commitment," and Inman knew she "had to be on that boat." She and her husband first had to learn to sail - "Racing is the best way to learn," she avers - and a year later, they boarded "Commitment" for the adventure of a lifetime and the wonder of a Christmas Day with 3,000 penguins.
PEI is no less a wonder to Jessie Inman; and her role as CEO at Confederation Centre no less an adventure. Commitment, she believes, will give her passage across the roughest seas.