The Annual Centennial Gala organized by the Sikh Foundation of Canada was held in Toronto’s Ritz-Carlton hotel the past weekend. The Gala, which started in 1997, commemorating the centenary of Sikh settlement in Canada has established itself as one of the most important events on the South Asian calendar. As is the case every year, the Gala honored distinguished members of the society for their contributions to the community at large. This year’s honorees included a corporate leader, two scholars of Sikh history, and two young social entrepreneurs. Canada’s Chief of Defense Staff, General Walt Natynczyk was the evening’s keynote speaker and had words of appreciation for the contribution of Sikh Canadian’s to the country’s military. Representing the political arena were Minister BalGosal, who read out a message from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Liberal MPP Charles Sousa who hailed the Sikh values of giving and community service.
This year’s honorees were: RumeetBillan (social entrepreneur), Dr. BalbinderBhogal (academic), Dr. Jean-Marie Lafont (scholar, historian), IvneetBains (social entrepreneur), and Pavi Binning (corporate leader).
The evening was also marked by cultural performances, including singing by Punjabi sensation Harbhajan Mann, a fusion presentation by a trio—RaginderMomi (violin), RohanBhogal (tabla), and JT Saund (dholak), and dance by a group called SonayGabroo Punjab De.
Rumeet Billan: President, Jobs in Education
GN: Tell us more about your current project. What are some of its biggest rewards as well as challenges?
RB: My latest project was a teacher’s college in Kenya, and with that came many challenges, but also many rewards. Some of the biggest challenges were communication because I am here in Canada and trying to communicate with people abroad becomes very difficult, especially when you are working in areas that don’t have electricity, running water, or internet. One of the biggest rewards was—the college opened in 2010, but the biggest reward was a year later when they emailed me and said that the college is self-sustaining. So the college didn’t depend on any donor funding.
I came up with the idea for this college. The idea was to work in a rural community because they have limited access to teacher training. I thought if the members of the community can’t go to the city and the teacher’s college, why not bring the teacher’s college to them? I talked to a few people; the community was very interested in it, so I supported it by donating funds, we renovated the building, came up with the leadership curriculum. I was there for interviewing the principal and the opening. I would have been liked to be more involved, but it’s difficult when you are working with a country that’s so far from your own.
GN: Share with us your experiences of teaching the leadership course.
RB: I love teaching at Humber College. The best part is that on the first day of the school when the students come, I always ask them to name someone they think of as a leader and they always name a political figure or celebrity. On the last day of class, I ask the students to tell me one thing they thought before that has changed. 75% of my class will say “I used to think only political leaders or people in position could be leaders, but now I think anyone can be a leader and I can be one.”
GN: What has your experience been like in Africa and South America?
RB: My first project was to build a primary school in Kenya and I followed it up by one in Sierra Leone. But my school in Ecuador was most interesting. When I travelled there, I was able to do some research and found out that building a primary school doesn’t mean much if there isn’t quality teaching. That’s how I came up with the idea of a teacher’s college, which I then did in Africa. The NGOs there weren’t very receptive to it, so I did it on my own.
GN: What are some of the areas you want to focus on in the field of education?
RB: I would like to continue with teacher development and leadership development and try to find out where those two connect.
IvneetBains: Founder, Math4Me
GN: Tell us about your journey in Canada so far.
IB: We came from India in 2007. The first thing is you don’t know what the pattern of education here is. I didn’t know how the education system worked, what the credits meant, how to apply to the university. It was a big learning curve, but I was determined not only to help myself but help others as well. So while I was applying to the Univ in Grade 12, I was also helping kids who were born here. The other problem I faced was bullying. Even though we sometimes deny it, it’s present at a lot of different levels. But I was able to counter it with my self belief.
GN: How did you come up with the idea of Math4Me?
IB: Math4Me tries to solve a problem. The best way to come up with an organization that tries to solve a problem is by observing the problem oneself. That’s what happened with me—I was in high school, did my Grade 11 and 12 in 2008 and 2009, and there I saw what was wrong with the current generation. We are living in a generation of IPods and FB and playing games, so I saw a lot of things that were wrong and said now is the time to fix it. Not only do we make sure that kids get academic help, which helps them get top-level grades, which is what Indian parents expect, but we also focus on motivating students, which I feel is generally lacking. We give students proper guidance, do many activities to increase their confidence, engage them in voluntary community activities, provide them scholarships—steps that can make sure that they don’t go on the wrong path.
GN: Math can draw extreme reactions. While some students love it, others dread it. How do you make it more interesting for students?
IB: We believe the kids need to have a passion. The way you create passion is by teaching them in a way that appeals to them. If someone likes to watch movies, you give them questions in which a movie actor faces a certain mathematical problem. And then, when kids start scoring better than their previous results, there is an automatic boost of confidence, which can scare any fear away.
GN: Tell us about your work with non-profit organizations.
IB: In Surrey, we are working with organizations such as City of Surrey—we are working with Adopt a Street and other programs and we get kids involved with these. Last year we worked with Canadian Cancer Agency and raised funds for them. We’ve also raised funds for building a school in Guatemala. The idea is to involve the kids towards important causes.
PAVI BINNING: President, George Weston Limited
GN: What has been your Canadian experience like so far?
PB: My journey in Canada began at the end of 2007 when I came here as the Chief Financial Officer of Nortel Networks, one of Canada’s biggest companies. It ran into a crisis many years ago, and I came as part of a new management team with a view to turning it around. We were making progress, and then when the financial crisis hit in 2008, the world changed. As a result of that, with the top line of the company collapsing, I was asked to lead the restructuring of the company by the board and did that for a number of years, before moving on to my current position.
GN: How well-equipped do you find the South Asian community in the field of business in Canada?
PB: I actually am encouraged in Canada. As I’ve come into the country, there are actually very few people in senior positions of South Asian community, but there are a few. I think that’s very important, to have role models. When I was in the UK, there weren’t that many role models; I was one of the first to break through the glass ceiling.
GN: Why do think there are so few SAs at the top of the rung?
PB: If I look at my own career, it didn’t really matter what your race was, what your age was—all they did was looked at ability. I think the foundation of education is very important because without that you can’t aspire to the more senior positions. But when you go into managerial positions, everyone has that foundation, and you need to differentiate yourself. What I found is that being exceptional and very good at what you do is absolutely critical. There’s great sacrifice involved with the senior positions—it’s not only about commitment and determination.
I think that when the first generations came over to the Western world, they really didn’t get involved in some of the role that people are now. And as the second generation is being educated, it will take time to come through. Our community has a great work ethic, so it will happen. I don’t believe there’s a glass ceiling.
GN: What would your advice be to youth to stay motivated in today’s grim economy?
PB: Get a great education. So getting that foundation of education and the highest marks you can is very important. Because at the very early stages, that’s what people use to distinguish you. Then, it’s a matter of working extremely hard and giving everything you can to what you do. Doing it to the best of your ability.
GN: What sorts of community engagements do you have beyond your career?
PB: As I started my careers, I was on the executive committee of a whole series of gurdwaras in the UK. Because of that work, I became advisor to leaders in local authorities and also the police in the UK to get the community engaged with the broader English community. In Canada, I sit on the board of a school in Toronto.