On a Mission

From radio to TV to social-media agency Youzus, Sonya Gill has emerged as one of Canada’s top personalities. But her real aim is to inspire those around her.

“It finally all made sense to me. I am meant to coach people, to inspire and lead people. That’s what I do on the show, and that’s what I get to do in my business.”
—Sonya Gill, President

Ever since her start in broadcasting, in 2003, Sonya Gill, social-media dynamo and president of Youzus Media, has been everywhere. While still in journalism school, she helped put together pitches for TV networks. She quickly decided her goal was “to be the next Oprah,” and getting her own show became her target. An internship at CBC was followed by a stint on The Weather Network, where Gill broadcasted through the night and then served tables during the day. “When your passion is that strong and you have a goal that big, you won’t stop at anything,” she says.

Urged by friends to “go compete in something,” Gill became a contestant in the Miss India Canada pageant. There she was spotted by Asian Television Network (ATN), which promptly offered her a TV- and radio-show gig. “It really gave me a platform to talk about taboo topics,” Gill recalls. She tackled important issues, such as rape and abuse—normally off limits in Indian culture—with her characteristic candor.

When the recession hit, Gill was laid off. However, two days later, Worldband Media, working in collaboration with BBC, offered Gill her own afternoon show on HD radio. She again had creative control, interviewing everyone from the Food Network’s Padma Lakshmi to the Vancouver Canucks’ Manny Malhotra to actor Brian George, of Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory fame. “I interviewed some amazing people,” Gill remembers. At the same time, she was immersed in the emerging world of social media, connecting with listeners and spreading her sphere of influence.

But everything wasn’t perfect in Gill’s world. In 2009, her best friend was tragically killed, an event that shocked Gill to the core. She needed direction, and a mentor advised her to follow her dream of moving to New York City. Gill packed her bags and left Vancouver soon after the funeral. “It felt good to be leaving,” she says. “I felt like I was going on to bigger and better things.” Once in New York, Gill quickly began making connections. She worked with Brook Shields’s sister and mother, interviewed Kanye West, and met Jay-Z. “Music has always followed me for some reason,” she says with a laugh.

It was in New York that Gill began hosting what she calls her “Meeting of the Minds.” With impressive connections to industry leaders, Gill wanted to set up regular get-togethers where New York’s movers and shakers could exchange contacts. The idea was a hit. “It became more of a woman’s thing, because I noticed that the women were connecting on a grander scale,” Gill says. “They went on to make even more relationships.”

Not long after her move to the Big Apple, Gill formed Youzus, a social-media agency catering to corporate, small-business, and entertainment entities. “Every single time someone needed me for coaching, social media, broadcasting, or hosting, they would ask me if I knew so-and-so to connect them with,” Gill recalls. “I thought, well, everyone seems to use me. So ‘use us.’ Youzus.” In 2009, Gill, who was already prolific on Twitter and Facebook, launched the Youzus blog. Four professional coaches wrote about their specialties, including finances, relationships, personal development, fashion, and beauty. It was about “helping people live their best lives,” Gill says.

Though Gill had returned to Vancouver to teach social media at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, she selected Toronto for the site of her next workshop, an affordable session where people would be coached on personal development while making new connections. “It was the same kind of concept that started off in New York, but this time it was taking it to another level,” Gill says. She relocated to Toronto later that year to pursue a position with the Food Network, and soon after was cast on a new show produced by elleFACTOR, where she’s a coach and mentor.

“It finally all made sense to me,” she says of the opportunity. “I am meant to coach people, to inspire and lead people. That’s what I do on the show, and that’s what I get to do in my business.”

Today, Gill believes that many corporate brands are still afraid of social media. The potential for negative interactions with customers is often among their chief concerns, but it’s something Gill says they need to overcome. “If they push through all of that and create a positive impact on the Internet, their business will thrive that much more,” she says. Gill believes the ubiquity of the online environment is important to success, saying that some companies are finally “using social media in their favour.” She cites examples like Air Canada, where customer concerns are handled quickly and transparently, and Coca-Cola, whose real-time advertising budget has been trimmed in favour of online channels. “It’s always better to go liquid than to just have a 30-second ad on TV, where you don’t know if that person left to go to the fridge,” Gill says.

With many hats to wear and numerous responsibilities to balance, Gill has become one of Canada’s top personalities, creating her own brand and enlisting her own expertise, no matter what project she attaches herself to. Whatever’s next on the list is sure to be just as vital as what she’s already accomplished.