Skip to content

Leading with authenticity: SkilledTradesBC's Shelley Gray breaks barriers

The organization's first female CEO is committed to creating a more inclusive industry. She is one of BIV's 2024 Influential Women in Business Award winners
Shelley Gray, CEO of SkilledTradesBC, says great leaders are courageous and authentic, and care deeply about their people

For much of her career, Shelley Gray said she felt like she was the first to jump into the deep end of the pool – the first to act, to dive into new opportunities and to find new ways forward.

Case in point: Gray in 2018 became the first woman to serve as CEO of SkilledTradesBC, the 20-year-old provincial government agency that works to advance B.C.’s trades training system.

“It’s a very male-dominated industry. I was not what would have been conceived as the right fit for the role from that perspective,” recalled Gray. “[I told myself] I’m going to do this anyway and go for it.”

That can-do attitude and willingness to learn new things has carried Gray through her varied career and she has been known for delivering exceptional outcomes through strategic expertise and operational proficiency.

When she was the business development director for Canada 3000 Airlines – which was then the second largest national airline in Canada – she led all international business expansion efforts and helped launch five new destinations within the South Pacific region.

Later, as the national senior manager of client services for Yellow Pages Group (TSX:Y), Gray stepped up to lead the company’s new digital media division – an area that was new to her at the time – to help strengthen the company’s position in advertising solutions.

But despite this mindset, Gray said she was at first hesitant to apply for the top role at SkilledTradesBC because she says she didn’t share the extensive industry experience of some of her peers. That, and the fact that the industry is largely made up of men.

She later realized that being a female leader in trades with experience outside of the industry was not her weakness, but her strength.

“I can come in a lot more from a place of wanting to learn and understand. And women bring such an ability to be empathetic, understanding and collaborative in trying to figure out a solution,” Gray said.

“That’s been a strength for me in the role and it’s what’s helped me and our organization excel … by bringing people together and being human and finding that common ground,” she said. Especially in her industry, she said, “it’s a lot of consensus building.”

As CEO of SkilledTradesBC, Gray has cultivated trusted partnerships with stakeholders, and led the development of an innovative multi-year strategic plan. She also led the organization’s transition and name change to reflect its expanded responsibility.

The new name and brand, along with a focus on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and Truth and Reconciliation, contributed to SkilledTradesBC’s record-breaking year of apprenticeship registrations: More than 41,000 apprentices were registered in 2023 alone.

For Gray, a great leader demonstrates both bravery and caring, as well as humility and authenticity.

“A really good leader has to care – you really have to care about the people around you. You need to truly want what’s best for your employees, for the organization’s vision and direction and where it’s going,” she said.

“To me, good leadership is always about authenticity and being true to who you are. And the more and more we can get leaders to show up as who they are – in terms of gender, style and everything – the better off we will be as more and more people will start to see themselves in those roles.”

Gray said she is happy to see that, nowadays, people have a better understanding of the values female leaders bring to the table, and don’t simply expect them to fit into a vision of how others think they should look and act.

In the early days of her career, when she was brought into leadership roles at organizations where there existed “an old boys club,” Gray said she was told that she had to work twice as hard to earn half the credit. She was also advised to wear pants instead of skirts to be successful.

“A lot of it is about harnessing your own power and your own abilities and believing in yourself,” Gray said. “When I think back to my younger self, I just wish I had believed in myself sooner and pushed harder, quicker.”

“Executive-level leadership doesn’t have to show up with a suit and tie. It can show vulnerability, it can show compassion, it can show warmth, it can show care, it can show humour.”

For women in professional and executive roles, Gray said it’s very important to find an inner circle – people and mentors that can be relied on for guidance and support. She advises others to not be afraid to reach out to other female leaders.

“I do see it very much as part of my role to help to pave that and make that path easier for others,” she said.

Gray serves as chair of the Canadian Council of Directors of Apprenticeship, as an executive committee member of Canadian Apprenticeship Forum and as HR committee chair for Vancouver College Ltd. and LDS (Learn, Develop, Succeed) Society. She is also on the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade’s EDI committee.

BIV will recognize the achievements of six female leaders at the 25th Annual Influential Women in Business Awards on March 8. For details and tickets, visit