Written by: María Laura Chang
Photography by: Kyle Lui
Dr. Gill is the co-founder of Vitala Global Foundation. Recently named one of Canada's Most Powerful Women, receiving the Women of Courage award, Roopan was recognized for her work dedicated to improving abortion access and sexual reproductive health in challenging contexts. Read on to learn Roopan's story, and what inspired her to dedicate her life to this important work.
“I wake up around 7 am, take a cold shower and brush my teeth to start the day. I usually take a shot of apple cider, my multivitamins, and brew a cup of coffee. I light my incense and try to do 11 minutes of breath work or a meditation practice”, says Roopan Gill, recipient of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women, about her morning routine.
When she was eight years old, Roopan’s family moved from Calgary to Toronto in search of new opportunities. “My parents packed up all our belongings and started the journey to Toronto from Calgary, and that is the moment I started journaling. It was a way to document my day to day experience. In fact, it was like a letter to a friend and I have always signed it off as “Love Roopan”. The urge to go inward has always been there since the age of 8.
You can see it in my old journals. I would often write “I need to meditate more”. She would find ways to materialize that over the years. Nowadays, meditation is an essential part of her day.
Roopan was born and raised in Canada by her East-Indian parents, but when you ask about “home”, she has no simple answer. “I don’t know where home is. I mean, is Canada my home?... Actually, I feel a deep connection with Latin America. I’ve worked in various countries and regions, such as India, Yemen, and Africa. But, right now, I am super committed to Latin America”. The deep connection to Latin America could be the intersection with her own upbringing in a Punjabi family: “Latina culture reminds me of Indian culture. The family is significant in both; the good food, the energetic dances, and the vibrancy. So there’s a lot of parallels”.
“We didn’t have that much when I was a child. My parents showed us at a young age the meaning of hard work and sacrifice. As the eldest, I was always observant and protective of my family. My father worked as a miner in those early days in Northern Ontario and the Northwest Territories and he would be gone for long periods of time. What I remember from those early days is being with my mother a lot. She was the one who started their first Subway business, she was the one who bought our first house, she was the one who I saw go through a lot of hardship, and I always observed her. I was always the one that was with her”. Roopan considers her a role model, a powerful woman because she built an empire from nothing, broke many barriers, and all with humility and grace.
If anyone gets the chance to visit Roopan’s house, the first thing she will do is turn on the music. It can be some Indian rhythms, maybe some Afro Beats, or Latin American music. She loves Bad Bunny, and it makes sense because she admits: “I’ve always been fun-loving. I like having fun”. Is anything more fun than dancing reggaeton? “I believe it is important to find as much balance in life as possible, as much as I work hard, I have also tried to have fun, expand my horizons and be curious”.
When Roopan was in ninth grade at Trafalgar Castle School, she was waiting for her parents to pick her up and the vice principal came to sit beside her. In the middle of the conversation, she said: “Mr. McClure, I’m going to be head girl one day”. Roopan recounts that day and remembers so vividly Mr. McClure’s expression - it was most certainly encouraging and in fact it did happen. She did become Head Girl at Trafalgar Castle, and the teacher actually said to her: I don’t have any doubt that you won’t be. “I went to public school until eighth grade, and then our parents put us in a small all-girls private school. When I was there, I felt super ambitious. I always felt like a visionary. I felt I knew there was something I wanted to do, and I would do it”. Many years after that conversation, when Roopan was a third year resident in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Ottawa, Mr. McClure’s daughter came into labour on one of her shifts and she recounts “And who ended up delivering his first grandchild?! Yes, it was me”.
Roopan bridges two worlds. “I can read the most scientific articles, but at the same time, I’ll take courses on Buddhism or philosophy. I have friends that are hardcore yogis but also friends who are hardcore doctors. This has always been part of me, trying to balance various worlds… In high school, I didn’t know what I would be, but I needed my career path to connect with humanity and humanitarianism”. Roopan’s days exemplify the dualism: a mix of clinical work at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto with remote work managing her team of 20 with Vitala Global while making time for yoga and meditation to stay grounded.
“I was a rebel, so I always had these ideas, these things I wanted to do. I was always thinking outside the box.” Growing up as a first generation Punjabi Canadian was sometimes hard. She would always want to push the boundaries and reflects on how she has always wanted the freedom to express herself, try new things and to be supported in that. Her successes are not without some hardship and failure as well. “I had to fight all the time. I feel like a fighter, and now I’m in the stage of my life where I don’t want to fight anymore. I want to be a more peaceful person, and to try to do things with more ease and softness and inspire others as well to recognize we can bring more ease to the hustle”.
“During Med School, I started to travel, and on one of those trips, I read ¨The Uses of Haiti¨, Paul Farmer's oldest book. I read that and reaffirmed that I need to do something as an activist and a doctor.It was telling me about all the issues in Haiti and its history. I've always been interested. It's just why I'm so interested in working in Venezuela, Colombia, I am curious to know the context deeply, and then we can think of solutions”.
“I was always seeking. I have always been trying to seek the truth. What is that and through that live it. At the start of each year, I choose a word to set an intention and this year my word was “Truth” which also is aligned with the award theme of “Live your Truth”. What it means to me is to really be authentic and vulnerable. To go know oneself so well and how we are part of the larger collective, to understand my ego and to work with it so that I can be a more impactful leader.”
Roopan has followed her passion, though sometimes the path may have not always been linear working with MSF, with time spent in Yemen where during the pandemic in 2020 her 6 week mission turned into a 6 month mission or through her work with WHO. In these experiences, she gained so many insights that allowed her to envision and co-found Vitala Global with her good friend, Dr. Genevieve Tam. “I can say that I do really love my job. Leading Vitala is exactly where I want to be”.
As one of the most powerful women, Roopan certainly demonstrates that by her discipline to her whole body wellness. At around 5 or 6pm, Roopan will do a Peloton workout with one of her favorite instructors. She talks often about how Peloton has been a life saver for her over the years, particularly when she first discovered them while in Yemen during her long mission there. She is also an avid runner and loves being in nature. After her workouts, it really isn’t the end of her work day. “To be honest I usually need to put in a few more hours to address things that weren’t addressed during a day of meetings. I mean, this is kind of the startup life.
Anyone who has had a chance to talk to Roopan and listen to her speak about her work and the team she works with, you can not help but feel the passion, fire and love for what she does.
“I want to be the kind of leader that is a bridge to worlds that do not speak to one another but need to so we can truly make transformational change. I present to philanthropists and potential investors but yet build the bridge as a frontline provider on the ground taking care of women every day. I am always going inwards working deeply to understand myself so that I can then go outwards and work with our communities to make a change. I know that my activism and spirituality are connected. I want to inspire the younger generation to be more self-aware, self-loving and emotionally intelligent as core values needed to be effective and powerful activists and advocates to change the world.”
Roopan’s recognition as top 100 most powerful women in Canada is certainly one she has lived up to and will use this power as a tool to continue her mission driven work to be in service of all the women and girls globally.
Journalist: María Laura Chang
Photographer: Kyle Lui
Kyle is a New York based freelance photographer. He specializes in editorial and documentary work, focusing on empowering and building empathy towards marginalized communities. You can view more of his work at his Instagram, @bykylelui or his website, Kyle-lui.com