Convocation address by Doug McIntosh, BCom’82, Managing Director and CEO, Alvarez & Marsal Canada, member of QSB’s Advisory Board

Posted on July 01, 2015

Mr. McIntosh delivered the following address at Grant Hall on May 23, 2014 to the graduating classes of QSB’s Executive MBA and Cornell-Queen’s Executive MBA programs.

Chancellor Dodge, Principal Wolfe, Dean Saunders, Members of our outstanding faculty and staff, and Queen’s Executive MBA and Cornell-Queen’s EMBA graduates, family and friends – it is my honor and a great privilege to be with you here today. 

First, I would like to extend my heartiest congratulations to our graduates who are being honored here today.  When I reflect on the immense, and competing,  demands and responsibilities that you have all faced in going through your program -  and  the stage of life that you are at personally and professionally -  I cannot but think that the Queen’s Executive MBA and Cornell-Queen’s Executive MBA must be among the most difficult and challenging experiences of any graduate degree programs.  I can only imagine how all-consuming (and exhilarating) a time it has been.  It must have been quite something going back to study mode after all these years. Well done to all of you. And I know how much the support of your families has meant to you – it has been a difficult journey for them as well and the support and sacrifices they have made have been very instrumental to your success. On behalf of our graduates, thank you all so much. And I understand that there were even some babies born during the session – just in case the program wasn’t challenging enough!

When Dean Saunders invited me to speak to you today, as you might expect, I started thinking about what I was going to say.  And what could I say to a group of very smart, very accomplished and very experienced group of people – it is not as if you need me to “show you the ropes.”  When I thought of you and what you have all accomplished, and the fact that all of you believed enough in yourselves to take on this challenge, and to make the sacrifices that you made in order to give yourselves the best opportunity for success and personal growth, I kept thinking about, and coming back to, the same story which I am going to share with you today. I hope you like it.

My daughter, Katie, is a Queen’s School of Business grad (Commerce 2010). After graduating, she decided to pursue a career in international development and worked in Africa for two years before doing her Master’s at London School of Economics (where she is currently in her final semester doing an MPA in International Development).  During her time working in Africa, she spent 15 months in a small regional centre called Kabala in rural Sierra Leone, in West Africa (with no running water, no electricity) doing micro-finance for women.  Now, as you can imagine, Sierra Leone is a pretty difficult place to be – one of the poorest countries in the world and ranked 177 out of 186 countries by the United Nations Human Development Index, still feeling the effects of a devastating civil war that ended a decade ago.  After a few months living and working there, Katie asked my wife Cathy and I to come to visit her to see how she lived and worked. So (with a small bit of trepidation)…. we went.  

Let me pause for a minute to tell you how the microfinance program (which was sponsored by a Canadian NGO) worked.  The purpose of the program was to provide working capital to women to each start up and ultimately grow their own business. These businesses typically involved agriculture, semi-skilled services or petty trading. It was an interesting setup.  The women who qualified had to organize themselves into groups of six (plus or minus). Initial loans granted were about $50 each, which had to be repaid, with interest, on a defined schedule every two weeks for anywhere from three  to six months. Once the initial loans were repaid, the women were then each provided with a second loan of a greater amount, and so on. But the liability for each loan granted within the group was joint and several, which meant that the women in each group were on the hook financially not only for their own borrowings, but for those of each and every one of their group members.  So they really depended on the other members of their group to get it done.  And they needed the support of their families and community – approval of their husbands and the local chief was required to enter the program.

Back to our visit: So one day, I accompanied a local loan officer on the back of a small motorcycle to do the bi-weekly tour of the countryside to collect loan repayment instalments and advance new loans (Cathy was on a similar tour). It was one of the most memorable days of my life. The trip took about 10 hours and was on some of the worst roads I have ever seen – a chiropractor’s dream to be sure.  In any event, I met about 80 women that day. To give you an idea of what these women were up against, only one of them could even sign her name on the payment receipts; the others simply used their thumbprints and an inkpad.  Each visit was incredibly interesting in its own right but the most memorable one was to a village about four hours away. There were two groups in town that were each moving up to their record 8th stage or iteration of loans which meant they had borrowed and repaid a ladder of increasingly larger loans seven times  – just an amazing accomplishment. They had put themselves out there, they had taken financial risk, they had worked extremely hard, they had counted on their fellow group members to come through, but most importantly, they had believed in themselves — and the results were life-changing. When we delivered the fresh, and much larger, advances of new working capital, the look of immense pride on the faces of these women was unforgettable.  I sat down for about 30 minutes to speak with them, and to hear their stories, with the loan officer acting as translator.

While some of the women were bubbling over, and others were quite shy, and they all had different experiences to relay, there were common elements to their stories that came through again and again.  The ability to afford to send their children to school, the dignity and respect and support that they had gained within their families and community,  the pride of accomplishment, the reduced daily financial stress, the fact that their efforts had made such a difference in their lives  – one woman had done so well that she had even  been able to afford to build a house for her family.  I should add that when I asked them how the program could be improved, their response was surprising, and somewhat overwhelming  – no complaints, no demands, not even a suggestion -  just a simple request …… “please tell all the people in Canada how grateful we are for their help”.   For people who with their lot in life all had much to complain about – nothing but a sincere and heartwarming message to people whom they had never met, but  whose support they would never forget.

So what does this story from half way around the world have to do with all of you, our Executive MBA graduates?  Your circumstances could not be more incomparable, so what is it about you that reminded me of those women?   What is the common ground that you share?  Well for me, it is about many things. It is about the human spirit, a desire to strive to be the best that you can be, about self-improvement and personal growth, about the ability to make a difference in your community and to perhaps provide greater financial security to your family.  About having the courage to stand up and make a change, to make a difference — to put yourself out there, in effect, to bet on yourself. And in some ways, while perhaps not the original intent, it is also about a journey of self-discovery:  the personal pride that carried you through every step of the way.  And about how no one can do it on their own – the support and strength of fellow group members, and your classmates (probably the only ones who could really relate to what you were going through!); the friendships that you have made that will last a lifetime.   And most importantly, the tremendous support of your families and friends – every single day.  

I’m going to finish with one of my favourite quotes which is an excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech “Citizenship in a Republic” which he delivered at the Sorbonne on April 23, 1910, often referred to as “The Man in the Arena”. The language is a little dated, but I hope it will resonate with you and bring this all together.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Thanks to all of our graduates for stepping into the arena –  for we are all  the better for it.

Congratulations again to our graduating classes.  I admire what you have accomplished so much, and wish you all the best for the future.

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