Risks are worth taking for BCom graduate

June 15, 2021 | Hamilton | Ontario
Contributed by McMaster University
John Collins, BCom Valedictorian

Meet John Collins, BCom valedictorian at the June 15, 2021 convocation for the DeGroote School of Business.

BCom Valedictorian: John Collins

Hometown: Born and raised in our nation’s capital, Ottawa. Like many other students, I’ve moved back and forth between Hamilton and Ottawa between school years. Also, I lived four months in Germany, two in Tanzania, and eight in Richmond Hill.

What is the degree and subject you pursued?

I took a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) with a minor in Economics. The BCom program gives you great flexibility to follow your interests, so I ended up taking courses in many disciplines including health sciences, entrepreneurship, sales, standup improv (yes, improv), and law!

Why did you choose to attend McMaster?

I’m actually the fourth generation of my family to attend McMaster, with my great grandparents first attending all the way back in the 1920’s when Mac was still based in Toronto! So, it was probably always meant to be.

Out of high school, I had initially intended on taking an engineering program. But then I watched the movie “The Big Short” and started learning about the huge impact that businesses have on everyone’s lives, for better and for worse. The possibilities were endless and exciting! I had previously toured many of the Ontario universities and found Mac to have a great feel, a diverse student body, and lots of trees – I was sold! The Commerce program ended up being a great fit and the rest is history.

What do you plan to do/see yourself doing after graduation?

I’ve just started working in Toronto at Volvo Car Canada in a Business Operations role and I’m loving it! I was lucky to have been rehired at Volvo following my internship between third and fourth year. I’m very happy to be working for a company that is taking action to reduce their environmental impact, improve vehicle safety, and invest in their employees. I’ve also been accepted into McMaster’s MSc Global Health program starting in the fall, so I’m looking forward to being back on campus!

As for long term plans, I see myself doing something at the intersection of sustainability, global health, and technology. I’ve been planning to apply to Medical School for some time now, but I could also see myself starting a company or continuing at Volvo. Either way, the future is exciting!

Any advice to your first-year self?

Explore Hamilton! Ask upper years where to go, take a couple friends, and venture out of the McMaster bubble.

Also, start reading. Pick a topic that interests you, set aside some time, and go!

Any advice for current or future students?

Find something that interests you and take on responsibilities related to that interest. Find students who think like you do and work towards a goal together. University is an amazing time to gain experience trying things and leading people in a controlled environment. When you get out in the real world beyond university, you don’t have the same safety net.

Similarly, do things that are out of your comfort zone! My motto since first year has been: Challenge = Change. If you’re scared or worried or unsure about what you’re doing, good. Not being 100% sure of your decisions means that you’re learning. These situations are invaluable for self-development, because they require you to be confident in yourself and your decisions.

How has McMaster shaped the person you are today?

This is a difficult question to answer, because I believe that I’m extremely different than I was when I started at Mac in 2016! I have different interests, different ambitions, and I’m far more socially conscious and culturally aware. I’ve learned to work through problems with people from a very wide range of backgrounds. I’m looking forward to the future now more than ever before. I’ve learned how to be a leader and how to learn. I’ve learned that I need to keep learning every day of my life!

What events did you enjoy the most at McMaster or in Hamilton?

Too much to say! But I’ll try. Firstly, McMaster’s Welcome Week can’t be beat. Throughout that first week, I met the friends who I ended up living with all through school and who are my closest friends to this day. To all incoming students: attend Welcome Week! It can be intimidating to meet new people, but it’s worth it. Secondly, I’m a big runner so naturally I’ve loved running through Cootes Paradise and other trails surrounding Mac’s campus. Thirdly, shopping in downtown Hamilton at all the independently owned stores and hobby shops. I’ve had some great finds at the secondhand stores! Ultimately, I’ll echo what I said above: grab some friends, go out in the city, and just try things.

What is your definition of success?

This reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from a hero and role model of mine, Chris Hadfield. In his book, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”, as Chris is about to board a Soyuz rocket for a 6 month stay as the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station, he writes:

“Tom, Roman and I were about to go away for quite a few months and take quite a few big risks. The best thing we could do for ourselves was to let that reality dominate our mental landscape until seriousness of purpose met buoyant certainty: yes, we’re ready to do this thing.”

I find this quote incredibly profound because Chris is acknowledging that risk can be balanced with training, preparation, and confidence. I believe that people these days are becoming too risk adverse. We’re afraid to fail, we hesitate to take action. These feelings paralyze us and before we know it we haven’t even come close to the dreams we’d set for ourselves when we were younger.

Success to me means reaching a point where “seriousness of purpose meets buoyant certainty”. I want to be working on a problem on the cutting edge of what’s possible, thus with inherent risk of failure, but where I’m certain that taking on that risk is worth it compared to the higher purpose of what I’m doing.

How has McMaster helped you to create a brighter world?

McMaster has taught me how to identify and find solutions to complex problems. University does not give you all the answers. Nothing will. But it teaches you how to work hard and work the problem. Making the world a little brighter means finding a need and filling it. I’m graduating well-armed to solve problems and want to make a difference in the world. Hopefully in the process I can make the world a brighter place.

Who is your favourite professor?

Associate Professor of Marketing Mandeep Malik and instructor of Sales Management, a fourth-year course in DeGroote School of Business which taught us a needs-based framework for sales conversations. Prof. Malik’s class is highly Socratic, challenging, and quite literally changed the way I think about the world. He taught us to listen to what people are telling you about their needs, think about how you can address those needs, and respond in a way that validates yourself and persuades the other person of your ability to help. This seems intuitive but is something that very few of us actually do in practice.

Dr. Candice Chow, Assistant Professor of Strategic Management and my instructor for International Business. Through case studies of businesses from all over the world, and through her own experiences working in many different regions, Dr. Chow showed us that the world is much larger and more diverse than the small sliver we get exposed to from here in Canada. You’ll notice a theme with all of my ‘favourite’ professors – they challenged me to think differently. Candice is no exception, challenging her students by asking us why we think a certain way or share a common belief. I learned that leaders must be challenging the status quo and asking themselves “Is there a better way that this can be done?”

Other professors who had an impact

Prof. Marvin Ryder, my instructor for fourth-year Entrepreneurship. Prof. Ryder is outgoing and clearly enthusiastic about the development of his students. He taught us to be realistic about the assumptions and challenges when starting a business. These challenges can be related to funding, expertise, personal goals, or any number of other important factors that Prof. Ryder had us consider while putting together a formal business plan. He also engaged the class in a great discussion about the likelihood and types of business failure (a topic which I’ve sorely encountered) and the importance of business ethics. Prof. Ryder never let you get away with providing one-off answers to his questions, he always dug deeper and challenged us to think about the rationale behind what we were saying.

Dr. Sean Park, the professor of a class in the department of health sciences called Innovation by Design, which took us through the process of design thinking to address a problem in healthcare. We learned about identifying problems in a target audience, validating their needs, brainstorming solutions, and iterating to improve your solution. The course was highly multidisciplinary – pairing together science, business, and social sciences students in the same groups – and introspective – challenging us to think about our role in groups and continually providing feedback to our group members.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

I would become a highly skilled inventor. My first invention would be a shoe that allows us to harness unlimited renewable energy just via the action of walking or running. The goal: do away with highly polluting fossil fuel energy generation while also incentivizing people to get outside and move!

If you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where would it be?

I’m not sure if this constitutes as “the world’, but if I could live anywhere, I’d live on Mars! I can’t wait to see humans step foot on the red planet within my lifetime (hopefully in high-definition video!). What an exciting time to be alive.

I’m also looking forward to getting back to East Africa. Nairobi, Kigali, and Dar es Salaam are three cities where I would love to live in. When visiting Tanzania in 2019, despite the cultures and lifestyles being so different from mine in Canada, it was surprisingly easy to relate and grow comfortable in this place halfway across the world. As advanced technology continues to sweep into the region, I’m excited to see how quickly these countries will grow in influence and economic prosperity.

What have you been doing to self-care during the pandemic?

I’ve found it challenging to prioritize my mental health throughout the pandemic. Since our work and leisure spaces are no longer physically separated, I’ve found it difficult to resist the option and pressure to be productive at all times. This has been a very common feeling among my peers in school or starting their careers. Pandemic stagnancy and languishing have been felt by almost everyone and is a very challenging feeling to deal with in a culture which values growth and advancement over almost all else.

The pandemic has certainly put some things in perspective for me. For one, before the pandemic, if you’d asked me about what brings me joy, I don’t know if would have been able to give you a straight answer. I’ve become far more aware of the things that I like to do purely for the sake of enjoyment and stress relief. Spending an afternoon chatting with friends, reading a good book on a topic that excites me, catching up and eating meals with family, exercising and playing sports – these are all things that I now turn to when I’ve earned or are feeling the need for a release.

What’s the hardest part about working virtually for you? The easiest?

I’ve liked the flexibility of working from home. Being able to have greater control over my schedule and decide when to work based on when I’m most productive. However, I’ve missed bumping into people on the way to class, having 15-minute chats to catch up with old friends, and learning in new environments when the old work/study spot has gotten stale. I’ve missed the random events and chance encounters that were commonplace in the pre-pandemic world. These are the types of things that I never truly valued before the pandemic, but I’ll never take for granted again after we’re out of it.

While at Mac, did you receive donor-funded financial assistance (e.g., a scholarship, award, bursary)? Any thoughts on the importance of giving back to your alma mater to support future generations?

Yes! I received an entrance scholarship when I was accepted to Mac. This helped alleviate some of the financial burden of university education. Given how privileged most of us Canadians are compared to the rest of the world, I believe that we should all have an outlet to give back in our lives. As the son of two teachers, I was taught from an early age about the importance of education. Educating yourself is of the best investments you can make in your life. Along this same vein, if you’re looking for an outlet to give back, give back to your alma mater. Support the education of the next generation. It will have an extremely high return on investment in the life of the students you’re supporting.

Class of 2021

Professor Mandeep Malik sat down with BCom Valedictorian John Collins to discuss his time at DeGroote, the memories they share, and more.

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