Robin Cardozo is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the SickKids Foundation. He arrived in Canada in 1976. The following is a conversation that took place on May 4, 2017.
What were the places you lived in before Canada?
I was born in Pakistan and lived in different parts of the country during my early years. I went to England and stayed there for four years as I studied to become a chartered accountant (CA). After I got my CA degree, I came over to Canada. While I was studying in England, my family had moved from Pakistan to Canada. When I graduated I had to make a decision. I could have chosen to stay in England—which I liked a lot—but the fact that my family was in Canada was the biggest draw for me.
Migration was a big part of your life. How has that shaped you into who you became today?
I have been a member of a minority community wherever I lived—whether it was a religious minority; being gay; an ethnic, or cultural minority. And then tied into that, the fact that I moved between continents twice in my life meant that I went through periods of adjustment as a newcomer. All those things together shaped who I am today. Did it help me or impede me? I would say both, at different points in time. I think it impeded me in that certainly there were points in time where I was aware of being on the receiving end of discrimination.
On the other hand, being aware of discrimination and being a minority has strengthened me in that I have developed both coping mechanisms, as well as having the benefit of terrific allies.
What was your career path in Canada?
When I arrived in Canada, I was a British CA. I wanted to be a Canadian CA, and in order to be one, at the time, you had to join a Canadian CA firm and pass certain, specific exams. I worked at a Canadian CA firm for a couple of years. From there I went to work in the financial industry. I was there for about six or seven years. I got laid off when the company I was working for got taken over by another company and most of our Toronto office was shut down. In hindsight, it was probably the best thing that happened to me, although at the time it felt pretty traumatic. After that, through a series of projects and events, I was hired as the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at United Way Toronto. I was very lucky to get that job. In some ways, it was the case of being at the right place at the right time. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) was new and she was looking for someone with a different background as her CFO. In that case, my background as an immigrant was actually helpful because it differentiated me from the other candidates. She was very interested in hiring people who brought different skillsets and diversity to the senior team.
I was at United Way for about 12 years as the CFO and then as COO. After that, I moved to Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) as the CEO for about a dozen years. And now, I am at the amazing SickKids Foundation. Each organization has been a great learning experience—they all had missions I could feel very excited about and terrific people whom I enjoyed working with.
You are someone who is quite successful in his career. How do you stay motivated or driven at this point in your life?
I stay motivated by having many interests in my life and trying to find the time to explore those interests. I have been fortunate to be in jobs in the past 30 years in the nonprofit sector that I have really enjoyed. I have tried to maintain an appropriate level of focus, to look for balance, so that I can explore other aspects of my interests. Right now, at the latter stage of my career, I am discovering that I have these creative urges that I want to explore, whether that is writing, or singing, or cooking, and so on.
Do you wish that you had set aside more time and intention in exploring these interests earlier on in your career?
Not really. Looking back at my life now, it is not as if I had a grand plan. It evolved over time. What did help me early on in my career was that I was able to volunteer in things that actually fit in well with my work. When I was first in Canada, I was working in accounting firms. One of the things that CA programs sponsor is tax clinics for low-income individuals. By being a volunteer in that program, I was able to meet a variety of people from many different walks of life. It helped broaden my horizon on who Canadians are, on the one hand, and it also helped me improve my skills on the other.
Do you have time to volunteer these days?
Yes. I sit on the board of a theatre company and also on the board of the Ontario Nonprofit Network. In addition to that, an area I am volunteering in that means a lot to me has been mentoring young people. I have done that through CivicAction’s DiverseCity Fellows, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and also informal mentoring as well. I think I have something to offer to younger people like you*, and also something to learn in return.
Can you expand on why mentoring is necessary when you are trying to build a career?
I will start off by saying that from the mentor’s point of view, a mentorship connection is very helpful because it helps one to be grounded in the reality of what young people are dealing with today. For me, it broadens my horizons by talking about life stories, experiences, and so on.
It is not a one-way exchange.
From the mentee’s point of view, one of the themes I have observed mentoring a wide range of people is that while many have terrific professional skills, knowledge, enthusiasm, etc., what many of them don’t usually have is a professional network. So, what a mentor can do in that case to help is build networks through introductions and so on.
How can one go about identifying and getting a mentor?
There are some formalized programs, like the CivicAction DiverseCity Fellows. Many professional bodies now have mentorship programs—the Chartered Professional Accountants (CPA) has one. One of the things that I have always been interested in observing is that people are usually happy to offer advice. The trick is to get to them in a way where they can trust that relationship with you. A cold call probably is not going to get you anywhere.
Apart from mentees, I meet a fair number of people who want to move to the nonprofit sector often mid-career, or from a different sector. I tell them, number one: It is hard to make the immediate jump because the nonprofit sector is just as competitive as any other sector. But it is possible to develop a long-term plan to get there.
The second thing I suggest to them is to get involved in the sector as a volunteer. If you have the opportunity to get on a board, great. Not everyone has that opportunity, so it is often easier to get on the fundraising committee or program committee. Look in places like Volunteer Toronto.
We have emphasized before on WES Advisor why volunteering is beneficial. There have been cases though where people overextend themselves through volunteering, and end up working for free when they could have been paid. Is that a legitimate concern?
It is a potential concern. I think ethical organizations will deal with that as it happens. I am thinking back to the years where I was at the OTF, and also here at SickKids Foundation, where we have had recent immigrants who have no Canadian experience looking to do some good work to put on their résumé. It is on us as employers not to take advantage of that, and I can think of a number of examples where we have both (the organization and the volunteer) reached a point where we said, “We would like to hire you and find a role for you here.”
The individual should also be careful to ensure that they are not being taken advantage of.
How can employers do a better job of including immigrants in their organizations?
I will split my response into two parts: recruitment and retention.
On the recruitment side, what employers can be doing better is broadening the way we look for candidates. One can do the mass approach, but also look for candidates through targeted connections. At the end of the day, employers could and should hire the best candidate, but often the best candidate is a recent immigrant and just may not be in the room or be aware of the opening. So, I think it is a combination of targeted outreach and a long-term approach. Use existing networks as well, whether that’s board members or customers or donors from different communities, and putting the word out through them. Many employers might end up with 200 to 300 applicants and it would be easy to identify the five candidates who seem to be the closest fit to what you are looking for, but it isn’t a big stretch to add a sixth or a seventh person to the pool whose experience is just a little bit different but is worth meeting with. And if they don’t make the cut for this particular job, maybe it is the next one.
I think retention is equally important because often a hire may not work out for cultural or communication differences, but a good employer would be sensitive to those things. These differences, by the way, apply for anybody and not just to immigrants, so I think it is important for employers to ensure that diverse communities feel comfortable in their workplaces.
Over the years, through the different sectors you have worked in, have you noticed any changes or trends in the ways employers have integrated and included immigrants in the workplaces?
I would say it is going in a better direction, slowly. In the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), where there is this incredible diversity, many employers are making more of an effort. But when you look at the senior ranks of nonprofit, corporate, or government sectors, the lack of diversity is still there.
Is that gap one of the reasons you have supported programs like the DiverseCity Fellows? To ensure better representation or reflection of the diversity of Canada in these leadership areas?
Absolutely. Again, I do speak within the context of the GTA, but nevertheless, we do have tremendous opportunities here that we have not fully taken advantage of in terms of providing opportunities to young people and immigrants to excel. Something like the CivicAction program is a really good program—I wish there were many more like it.
Do you think it’s fair to say that there wouldn’t have been a program like DiverseCity Fellows 20 years ago?
I would say 20 years ago the push was more around education on anti-racism and on the importance of multiculturalism. When I was at United Way Toronto, almost 30 years ago, the board and the senior management were predominantly white. They were doing a good job, so part of the question was why did we need to make a change now? We had to make the case together that we cannot afford to make the change later. If we don’t change today, five to 10 years from now, as the communities grow and change, the organization will suffer.
From that point on, 30 years ago, United Way-funded agencies were required to have multicultural trainings for their board and staff, to have diversity policies, and so on. Some of the language and programs have changed over time, but I think those concepts still remain relevant today.
You say you are in the final stages of your career. What are you excited about going forward?
Well, I’m not done yet! But yes, I am looking forward to travelling and spending the winters away, in warmer areas. I very much want to get into creative writing. Actually today, I am starting a cooking class with my daughter at George Brown College—they have an excellent culinary program. Also, from my last couple of trips, I have discovered that I have an interest in photography. Not anything near your level of photography, of course, but I have really enjoyed discovering what I could do with my iPhone.
We interviewed Manjushree Thapa, a Nepali Canadian writer in Toronto, for a previous spotlight article. Are there any writers that you like right now?
Right now, there are two writers that I am reading carefully because I like their style: David Sedaris and Alan Bennett, who is a British playwright. There is a play of his opening in the Shaw Festival this week called “The Madness of George III”, so I am looking forward to seeing that.
How do you describe Canada to someone who has never been here?
I absolutely think of it as the finest country in the world, in so many ways. One small story: When I was the CEO of OTF, I was at a meeting that included a visiting delegation of heads of European foundations. I was being introduced as the CEO of the biggest granting foundation in Canada and this person, who was from Belgium, couldn’t believe that I, as an immigrant, could be in such a position. That, to me, said less about me and more about Canada. Maybe in Europe it might be more difficult for a first-generation immigrant to head an organization as large as OTF, whereas in Canada, it is actually not that big of a deal.
I know I have many blessings and I came at a time when the job market was a lot easier than it is today. I had a lot of luck along the way—I’ve had amazing mentors. And I know many issues still remain around barriers and representation. But I still do believe Canada is better, when it comes to opportunities, inclusion, and tolerance, than most other countries in the world.
Thank you very much, sir.