After 30 years travelling the world, Jessie Inman is back home in Prince Edward Island with her dream job. The former PEI farm girl is CEO of the Confederation Centre of the Arts, the theatre and cultural centre that brings the Anne of Green Gables story to life and is a memorial to the Fathers of Confederation. It is where she worked as a teenager, before her CV added significant breadth – as a trade bureaucrat in Ottawa, investment adviser in Indonesia, gas plant boss in Australia and energy consultant in Calgary.
What gives you the incentive to tackle such varied jobs?
I like to do interesting things and I like to do new things. I am a very driven person and, when I want something to happen in my life, I am very committed. The world is full of opportunities and every morning we can wake up and decide how that day is going to be. We are the makers of our own destiny.
How did you get on this path?
After my college studies in PEI, I worked at the Confederation Centre [as an administrative assistant] for almost three years. I was then invited to join the Discovery Train, which in 1979-80 was this [museum] train with the history of Canada riding on it, traversing the country. I visited 120 Canadian towns and cities in two years at the age of 19-20. I had the most amazing experiences for a young person.
How did you get into the trade and investment world?
I went to Ottawa and started working in a quasi-government organization that was consulting to Foreign Affairs, and was involved with building Canadian pavilions and looking after our international trade fairs all over the world. Then, we signed the Canada-U.S. trade agreement and I asked to come and work in that [government] trade bureau.
I had an amazing job. I was travelling so extensively with those jobs that, when I lived in Ottawa for 14 years, I spent most of it on an airplane.
What drew you to Asia?
I had been working on developing a program at Industry Canada to take Canadian companies into Southeast Asia. The first time I got off the plane in Bangkok, I said ‘Wow.’ On that day, I decided to move to Southeast Asia. I thought at first I’d come for two years and get credibility in that area. I went to five countries, and Indonesia was the last I visited. Someone told me it was the most complex country in Southeast Asia in which to do business and I thought ‘Perfect. I’ll get the most experience I can.’
I found out about the job of Canadian investment adviser to Indonesia, and I started learning the Indonesian language. In 1994, I moved inside Indonesia’s ministry of investment, along with three other foreign investment advisers from other countries. Over seven years in that job, I helped up to 50 Canadian companies establish enterprises in Southeast Asia.
After I finished that, I wanted to stay in Indonesia. I had been talking to Palliser Furniture [of Winnipeg] about establishing itself in Indonesia. I was commuting every week from Jakarta to central Java, while I was working for Palliser.
And how did you end up in Australia?
I had spent 10 years in Indonesia. My husband Allan Hart is from Alberta and we thought about whether to go to another country or go home to Canada. We took time off, travelled, climbed a few mountains and did some safaris.
We decided to accept jobs in Perth, Australia. I was CEO of a gas processing company that was developing new technology to take carbon dioxide out of natural gas at the wellhead. I was always delighted to walk a person through the gas processing plant. It was like having some kind of soft engineering degree.
Why come home to PEI?
We had been living recently in Calgary and working in oil and gas. I told my husband that I had been eight years in the oil and gas industry and I said, ‘I am going to change. I just don’t know to what.’ He just assumed we were going to move and it was going to be Kenya or something like that.
Two days later, I saw this job posting with the Centre, and said, ‘My goodness, that describes what I would love to do right now.’ I looked at Allan and asked ‘Would you like to move to PEI?’
But what prepared you for an arts job?
It suits my desires in life now – to learn something new, and I’ve loved the arts my whole life. I’ve enjoyed the arts in every place I’ve lived. The Confederation Centre drew me because it is a national memorial to the Fathers of Confederation, and the founding of this great nation I love so much. The centre opened in 1964 and it has the mandate to honour the Fathers and our heritage and the evolution of Canada. We do that as a living memorial. We are an arts institution with four theatres and the largest art gallery east of Montreal with a 16,000-piece permanent collection.
Can you deal with moving back to such a small place like PEI?
I feel so blessed to have such an incredible career and such a big life – but this is the biggest life I’ve had so far, because of huge opportunity to grow the organization and make it more significant to all Canadians.
How do you plan to do that?
I have many campaigns and projects under way. We have a program called ‘Evolution Chapter Two’ under way to re-engage all the provinces and territories.
We are developing a new musical and it is going to be original, produced by the Confederation Centre. It is a big project because musicals are expensive to produce. We have a general national awareness campaign where we are holding meetings and sessions across the country to simply raise awareness of the centre and the foundation that runs it.
When did you know you were going to be a leader?
I knew when I was about 19. I wanted to be the person out at the front of the Discovery Train telling people what was going to happen once they were inside the museum. I was excited to be the person out front.
Is leadership natural or can it be learned through courses?
I’ve taken a million courses on leadership and they are absolutely useful. You can always learn new ideas and I even go on the Internet – for example, on LinkedIn, where there are leadership forums I participate in. I’ve been through all the Mastery University program of Tony Robbins and many other people. I read a lot of books and I am always inspired by other leaders.
What keeps you awake at night?
Usually, it is what is on my schedule the next day. I wouldn’t call myself a worry-wart, but it might be my nature to worry a bit too much sometimes. When you finally wake up, it is always better than it was in the middle of the night. You think: ‘Why was I dreaming about that for a half-hour last night?’