Peterborough’s Camila Duarte has always had a passion for helping people. It’s the drive that led her to move to Canada, led her to start her coaching business, and led her into her new role as executive director of the Innovation Cluster Peterborough and the Kawarthas.
It was also the drive that helped her stay resilient through the hardships, hurdles, and obstacles she faced on the journey to getting to where she is today.
Having grown up in what she calls a “conservative” family in Colombia, South America, Duarte moved to Canada when she was just 18 years old. At the time, she was attending university and studying engineering at the insistence of her family, but she knew it wasn’t what she wanted.
“I didn’t think I had options,” Duarte recalls. “I went to engineering school, but I knew deep down that I wanted to be in service of people. I’ve always been a people person and oriented to help people.”
When her boyfriend at the time announced he was moving to Montréal, Duarte took a chance at adventure despite having very little knowledge of Canada. With Spanish as her native language, she says she faced a huge shock when she first arrived as she didn’t know English or French and had to quickly catch up, all while studying social sciences as an international student at Montréal’s Collège LaSalle. Despite the linguistic challenges, she appreciated her new home.
“I felt like I could do whatever I wanted in Canada in terms of studying,” she says, adding that she loves to learn. “Culture-wise, I felt I fit in. It’s more liberal, not conservative like in Colombia. It was rich and full of culture, full of adventure.”
But when the relationship with her boyfriend didn’t work out, Duarte had to start out all over again. Never telling anyone back home that she was now on her own, she began taking on three to four jobs at a time while she was learning English and French. Those years of determination led Duarte to attend Concordia University to study human planning and urban development.
“Those first three years in Canada were the biggest lessons of my life and the years that shape who I am today,” she explains. “I hit rock bottom in so many ways, so many times. I think I made all the mistakes you can imagine as a 19 year old going through big, traumatic experiences. It could have gone one way or the other, but I started to make a difference for myself.”
The resilience paid off and she says it was “one of the best feelings” when she graduated from Concordia with her bachelor’s degree — extra rewarding, because she was thinking about the words her former boyfriend had said to her when they broke up.
“He told me he was going to buy me a ticket back to Colombia because I could not do it without him,” she says. “I will never forget that.”
Despite the hardships, Duarte recalls those years fondly because of where they led her.
“I did it on my own and it’s something that gave me a lot of confidence,” she says, adding that it inspires much of her work today. “I’m very grateful for those lessons and I’m a better person for it.”
Still eager to learn, after graduation Duarte started her master’s in business at Concordia. Upon completion, she began her next adventure: travelling to several continents before eventually working in start-ups and non-profits in Australia.
“I live for travelling and that is my biggest passion — to understand the world,” she says, noting that it carries into her work today. “That has also shaped me as a leader, because being exposed to the different worldviews, I think, is the richest thing you can do.”
Just as she was about to set off on a new adventure by leaving Australia for New Zealand, she learned that her partner’s father was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The couple moved to Lindsay to support him, before then permanently settling in Peterborough.
With the family illness and the pandemic both being additional “transitional experiences” for Duarte, she reached another point in life where she was feeling lost and unsure. As she often does when she’s stuck, she says, Duarte started researching and reading and became interested in relationships between illness and quality of life.
When she came across an exercise in one of her books that suggested each day she make a list of 10 things that she wanted in her life and do it in six months rather than five years, she found that starting a business was always on the list.
“I didn’t know what type of business I wanted to pursue but everything I wrote down was about helping people, helping women, and coaching,” she says. “The biggest was helping women on a journey where they’re stuck because I understand that — I lived it and it’s so hard. It takes a toll on yourself, your partner, your family, your work, your world.”
And so she got certified as a coach and started FoundHer, a life and career coach counselling service.
“I love helping women and I want every woman to be happy and feel good,” Duarte says, acknowledging she was also thinking a lot about her transformative years in Montréal. “It gives me purpose.”
While Duarte labels herself a feminist, she assures it’s not in the often-misconstrued perspective that defines feminism as “hating men.”
“It’s about equality,” she explains. “Because the balance (between genders) has always been so off, I always wanted and have tried to bring a perspective of what we can do to make this balance work. There’s still so much work to do, so I’ve always been inclined to really help women have a voice and to be encouraged and empowered.”
As she continued to grow her own business, Duarte also began her journey at the Innovation Cluster, beginning in 2021 as an innovation specialist and programs director before being appointed as executive director this past September.
With Duarte taking the lead, her team has recently released a new strategic plan to lead the non-profit economic development organization into its next three years of supporting entrepreneurs in the region.
“It’s called Mindset Shift, because we want to be part of the transformation that Peterborough needs,” Duarte explains. “We’re working very hard and doing so much work to bring Peterborough to the next level and to be part of the economic impact change. We’re passionate about business. We’re passionate about transforming and change, and we want to make it happen in Peterborough.”
Duarte says the Innovation Cluster was a natural draw for her because it combines her passions for technology, business, working for a non-profit and, most of all, helping people.
“FoundHer and the Innovation Cluster let me do what my purpose is and, to be able to do that, I feel extremely lucky.”