This feature was part of our July 22 “A Salute to Construction in Our Community” special section. Click here to see the full edition.
She chose the second option.
Chawla, now the founder and CEO of ACE Community College and ACE Trades and Technical Institute, said with her background as an electrical professional, it made sense to teach what she already knew.
But with limited funds to advertise, she handed out flyers at SkyTrain stations, small grocery stores and used Punjabi radio stations.
“In a matter of three months, I had more than 20 people wanting to learn electrical,” Chawla said, adding she learned there is so much need, especially among immigrants, who may not be fluent in English.
That was in 2007, said Chawla, noting that within six months to a year she was teaching people from across Canada who were struggling to pass their exams.
“From Surrey, in my parents’ garage where my mother was watching a show upstairs and I’m trying to teach my guys in the most messiest garage you can find, to teaching in all the provinces of Canada over a two- or three-year period.”
ACE has since grown from a one-woman show – Chawla said she was the teacher, the marketer, the payroll person – to a community college at 9486 120th St.
The college also offers more than just electrical courses.
“When I was teaching electrical, a student would say, ‘There’s a plumbing person I know who needs a plumbing ticket, do you know anyone?’ So we started from electrical to plumbing to pipe-fitting to iron-working to instrumentation … We do 20 other trades now.”
Chawla said she first started looking for the right building in 2013, but the Industry Training Authority has strict guidelines on the design of a school.
After putting the idea of buying a place on hold while she was pregnant with her daughter, Chawla said they bought what is now ACE’s current location and spent two years building and designing it to the ITA’s specifications.
She said they moved into the school in March of 2020 and had an interim designation from ITA for the first year and were fully designated three months ago.
“There is a lot of sacrifice, is what I’m trying to say. I gave birth when I was 41 years old, so I put my life on hold to create this dream. When I met my husband, I was already 39 years of age,” said Chawla, who is now 44.
And it hasn’t always been easy being in this industry as a woman – specifically a woman of colour.
“Imagine, when I started teaching I was 23, 24 … With brown skin and I’m a female with a full accent going and anybody who came to the classes, he thought I was the front desk receptionist and the teacher will come, like, an old grumpy guy will come and teach me electrical,” she said.
“That has not stopped. I have a class of 50 guys every Saturday … and judgments are always there.”
But despite that, Chawla said she hopes more women decide to go into trades.
“I’ve grown as a woman, I’ve grown as a mother, where I can teach my daughter to stand up for herself in front of a man … and how great these trades are.”
However, she said in her years of teaching, she’s taught “maybe four to six women,” compared to the thousands of men.
“It’s not very comfortable for a woman to choose trades because of the dynamics of the nature of the job.”
But Chawla added that ACE is run by women.
“We have instructors who are men, but all of us in the admin or sales part of it, we’re all women and we’re running the show.
“It’s so rewarding for me as a person to see all these ladies grow when they go home with a decent paycheque and they tell the guy, ‘I’m not just good enough to give birth to babies and raise your children. No, I’m good enough to create a life for myself.’”
For more information on ACE, visit acecollegecanada.com.