Bhavana Varma’s Story As She Led United Way Over The Years

In the nonprofit world, Bhavana Varma’s journey is truly inspiring. From starting fresh in Canada to making big changes at United Way, her story shows how passion and hard work can lead to remarkable achievements.

Today, we’re going to share with you a summary of an insightful discussion between Catherine Tang from Spreaker and Bhavana Varma, where shares her journey from moving to Canada, to working at United Way.

If you’re ready to learn more about Bhavana’s story, let’s get started.

“How did you first get involved with United Way?

I was a very reluctant immigrant. My husband had turned to me and said, “Do you want to go to Canada?” and I actually said no. And before we knew it, we were here. And I wasn’t happy because I was missing my family and friends. 

My credentials weren’t recognized. My experience wasn’t recognized. I was considered a new worker. So the only job I could actually get was through a Kelly Temporary Service Placement and I ended up typing receipts of the United Way. 

And as I was typing these receipts and you know, I couldn’t get a job. I suddenly woke up and looked around me, and the beauty of the United Way just struck me. We didn’t have this in India, where I come from. We didn’t have an organized way to help people. So I stayed and I just kept working my way through the ranks.

“You did mention this idea of serving and supporting the community…”

I always had that. When I was nine years old, I remember my parents took me to see this movie, it was Gone With The Wind, which is a long movie. And when I came out of it for the first time, I still remember that sinking feeling of seeing kids on the street and families on the street.It just broke my heart. 

In India, there is so much poverty, but for some reason, because we lived in base camps or whatever, I have not seen poverty. I sobbed all the way back to the base and my dad took me aside and said, “What was bothering you?” 

And I just said, “All these people, we have to do something. Like, what can you do?” And he gave some really great advice. He said, “You can’t change the world, but every day do something to help someone.”

So that’s what I’ve tried. So I’ve always had that I need to do something to help people.

“So let's talk a little bit more about your role today. Just with the United Way, what are some of the most challenging things about being in your position?”​

Not having enough time in a day. There’s so much that we can do as a community. This is a great community. Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, it’s such a caring community. It’s just the right size. 

You’re two steps away from the decision makers or the frontline workers to make a difference. So bringing your community together and mobilizing people is what the United Way does, and in a community like Kingston and area. That’s the beauty of what can be done. 

We have achieved a lot. We’ve tried a lot of new things where we’ve worked very closely with our agencies, with our partners like the city and different levels of government, with our workplaces. And it’s really creating a community that we all want to live and work in.

“With your time that you've been at United Way in Kingston, what would you say you're like when you first started in Kingston versus today?

I have never actually been in the executive director or CEO position. I’ve been kind of number two and number three, and right from the frontline, like I worked my up. It was tough. And I remember one time when I was first getting here at this place was a mess. And there were so many different voices coming at me on what I should do or not do. 

One day, I remember my dad had come to visit, and I was frustrated that I don’t know what to do. And my dad said, “They’ve hired you to make a decision; you might make the wrong decision, they’ll fire you. But you need to make a decision.”

That really helped me so I stopped being a dithering kind of what do I do, and I just started to make decisions and, you know, your confidence grows as you build decisions. And I’ve always had an amazing board of directors who’ve supported me through the whole, again, another strong partnership. 

And so yeah, that’s the biggest change in my comfort level and making significant decisions sometimes, but even the little decisions.

“You did mention this idea of serving and supporting the community…”

Bhavana’s journey is a powerful example of how resilience, coupled with a clear vision for impact, can lead to remarkable achievements in leadership and community service.

If you want to listen to the complete conversation, click here.