Meet VPD’s Public Affairs director Simi Heer
By Surbhi Gogia
There is absolutely no substitute for hard work, once said famous inventor Thomas Edison. You do not need to be born with a silver spoon to climb the ladder of success. Every day we hear inspiring stories of people around us who worked hard to reach leadership positions in various organizations without having the benefit of extraordinary resources. Simi Heer is one such inspirational story who by her sheer hard work has acquired a very important position in the Lower Mainland Community.
Heer is the Director of Public Affairs for the Vancouver Police Department leading the communications strategy of the department and providing oversight for all communications and public affairs functions of the organization. Only in her 30s, Heer has been at the leadership position for quite some time now.
Before joining VPD, Heer was the manager of media relations and issues management and the lead spokesperson at BC Hydro. Heer and her team developed and implemented the media and issues strategy and dealt with news media from all regions of the province. She led communications for a variety of issues and corporate initiatives, ranging from power outages and electricity rate increases to promoting conservation programs and highlighting billion-dollar capital projects. One of Simi’s career highlights at BC Hydro was dealing with the aftermath of the 2015 windstorm – the worst storm in the company’s history.
In 2008, Simi won an IABC Gold Quill merit award as the editor of BC Hydro’s employee magazine. Simi studied communications at Simon Fraser University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree.
Heer’s parents came from India and like many other immigrants worked hard and various odd jobs to provide a good life to their kids. In an interview with Desi Today, she traces her journey from her childhood to this top position. Her mantra for success is work hard and hard work.
Please tell us something about your family? Like where do your parents come from, their professions, your place of birth, age, your siblings etc?
My parents migrated here from India in the 70s. They settled in a small town in the interior of B.C. and that’s where my two older sisters and I were born and raised. My father worked in a sawmill and my mother was a stay-at-home mom until I (the youngest) was old enough to go to school. After that, she got a job at a local restaurant.
Both of my parents are retired now and live in Surrey. I realize that my life would be very different if they had decided to stay in India. Making the move to Canada was difficult for my parents. My dad travelled throughout the province with no money, looking for a place to work and settle. I’m grateful for the sacrifices they made and, as an adult, can fully appreciate the hardships they faced.
2) Could you please share how was your childhood like your schooling, interests, hobbies and what you wanted to be when you grow up?
I grew up in Clearwater. Growing up in a small town was a lot of fun and carefree. All of the kids in the neighbourhood played together – we had a lot of freedom to just run around in the neighborhood and explore all of the nearby wooded areas and trails. It was a very safe place to grow up. My dad was quite fond of boating and we spent many weekends at one of the many lakes in the area we lived in.
I was always a good student and enjoyed learning. I got good grades and enjoyed participating in extra-curricular activities. In high school, I played on most of the sports teams, but basketball was my favourite.
When I was in high school, I wanted to be a journalist. I liked learning about people and writing stories. I was also very interested in politics as a teenager so I thought journalism was the right path for me. I changed my mind, however, when I got to university.
3) What was it that attracted you towards Communication subject and the courses you pursued during your graduation days?
Growing up, for post-secondary education, I knew I wanted to go to university and start with a degree – going straight to technical school never appealed to me. When I started university, I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. I was very interested in Political Science, Criminology and Communications. In the end, I majored in Communication and applied to the co-op program. Doing co-op was important to me because I wanted to start building my skill set so that I could finish school and have some work experience to fall back on as I looked for a job. My sister went to SFU before I did and also majored in Communication. She was able to offer advice as I navigated my way through university and co-op.
4) Please take us back to your career growth. What was your first job and how did you grow in your career?
My first job that led me down my current career path was with the Protection Branch of the B.C. Forest Service. I worked as a Fire Information Officer at the Kamloops Fire Centre. I learned a lot there and met many interesting people that really helped to shape my career. I learned how to work under pressure and keep calm and focussed during tense situations – that’s a skill that’s important to learn early on in your career and you can use it in any situation. I’m really grateful that I got that opportunity.
My career path developed organically for me. I have never set a target of having a specific job that I have then aimed to get. My approach has always been to work hard and keep learning and growing. Through this approach, different opportunities have come up that have led me to where I am today.
5) You worked in BC Hydro as the spokesperson and your career highlight was the 2015 storm? Please tell us something about it. What were some of the challenges you faced and how you dealt with that difficult situation?
BC Hydro was a great place to work and I feel like I “grew up” there as professional. It’s a large company with diverse operations so I was able to participate in some pretty unique projects and initiatives. There are some very smart, talented people who work at BC Hydro and they are true experts in their fields. As a communicator for a large, complex company, you rely heavily on these experts to be able to do your job effectively. For example, at Hydro, this included people who do long and short term energy planning for the entire province to the operations teams who build and fix the electrical infrastructure that brings power to people’s homes.
Being a company spokesperson was a small part of my role. There was a lot of work and planning behind-the-scenes that was challenging and fun.
One of the challenges you face when start in an organization as a young professional is building credibility and acquiring the trust of those around you. You have to prove yourself through the work you do and this can take time. It’s important to be patient and work hard.
6) How did you decide to join VPD? How was the transition from Hydro to police department? What were some of the challenges you faced?
I didn’t necessarily want to leave BC Hydro, but the opportunity at the VPD really interested me. I have been a Vancouver resident for a very long time and am proud to live here. The work that VPD does really matters and makes a big difference in peoples’ lives – by taking on this role, I felt like I could give back to my city in my own way.
I was able to meet with our Chief Constable before I was hired. I really liked everything he had to say about the direction the department is headed in. We go well beyond law enforcement and focus on public safety in general. This means helping people in Vancouver – it could be helping someone in the middle of a mental health crisis or simply helping someone get home if they are lost.
The VPD is progressive police department and there is a big focus on building relationships with different communities. We have several outreach initiatives that allow us to reach out to Vancouver’s diverse population and it is a two way street – we want to be available and accessible to Vancouverites and also hear from them about what is working and what isn’t.
I have been truly amazed by many of our outreach initiatives and community-focussed work. One of my favourite programs is our New Kids program. This program is funded by the Vancouver Police Foundation and it allows us to connect with children who are new immigrants to Canada. We recognize that relationships between kids and police officers in other countries can be strained. They often come from countries where they cannot trust their local police. We work with the kids to build trust and help them understand what we do so they have feel comfortable with police in Vancouver and know that we truly want to help them.
7) What does your job entail as the director of Public affairs at VPD? How does your normal working day look like? Any memorable moment so far in VPD?
I oversee all of the public affairs functions for the VPD, including media relations, social media and marketing. My role entails setting the communications strategy and working with my team to implement it. I spend most of my time at our headquarters on Cambie Street. I don’t have a typical, routine day – every day usually brings a new challenge.
I have only been with the VPD for one year and my colleagues have been very supportive in helping me understand our business and operations. I have been able to visit all of our different units to see first-hand what they do and, in some cases, I have been able to participate in events and training activities.
I participated in a ‘ride-along’ with one of our frontline, patrol sergeants a few months after I started in this role. I got a first-hand look at the work our patrol officers do on a daily basis. One of the most memorable moments of the ride-along was witnessing our officers dealing with a Vancouver resident with mental health issues. I was incredibly impressed by their compassion and patience in ensuring this individual got the help that he needed. But, I have found this is quite common in our department – we have some very dedicated members who are very committed to keeping Vancouver safe.
8) How do you define communications as a career? What are some of the skills that one needs to have to get into it?
The communications field is quite diverse – there are many areas you can get in to. It can encompass things like social media, marketing, marketing communications, media relations and storytelling. Many skills from each area in communications are transferrable to other areas.
My advice to people starting out in the field is to build your ‘toolkit’ with basic skills that you can put to use in any area of communications. For me, that included working on my writing skills, leadership ability and relationship building. You never work in isolation in communications so you need to build relationships with people inside and outside of your organization. You will need to help from these contacts to get access to people and information when you need it to do your job effectively.
9) You are holding such important and responsible position at such young age, do you ever get intimidated?
At the VPD, the Chief and leadership team understand the importance of public affairs and communication and they value and appreciate the work my team does. Generating awareness about issues and providing timely information to the public plays a part in crime prevention and helps us build trust with the citizens of Vancouver. Thanks to this support for the work we do, I don’t get intimidated.
10) What is your message for the young South Asian youth who want to aspire to hold responsible positions like you in their community? Do you get time to involve in the South Asian community affairs?
I think young people should value the hardships their families may face as they adjust to new cultures and new environments. Many parents work odd jobs, double shifts to make ends meet and hope for a better future for their children. It’s also important for young girls, regardless of their culture or background, to aspire to positions of leadership. I’m constantly inspired by the many powerful, smart women, including South Asian women, who occupy leadership roles across a number of industries. For young people in Canada, right now, the possibilities are endless.