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April 14, 2020

Celebrating community volunteers

Ali Soheil calls himself one of the lucky ones.  “I never thought that this program and this school would have such a profound meaning for me,” he says, referring to his role as Entrepreneurial Adventure business mentor to a Grade 5 class at Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto.
Ali came to Canada at the age of 18 with “no parents, no support, no money, nothing. It was one of the hardest things I ever did,” he says. And it’s one of the things that he says has enabled him to connect deeply and immediately with Thorncliffe Park’s students. The school has one of Canada’s most diverse student populations with children in Grades 1 to 5 from 47 countries.

A perfect fit 

“I couldn’t believe how perfect Ali was for Thorncliffe Park Public School. He shared part of his story and it became evident that he was a perfect mentor for these students,” says Teresa Milazzo-Colle, program manager with The Learning Partnership who made the match happen.
At first, Ali didn’t fully understand why Teresa thought he would be a good role model for this particular group of students. Then he met the class. “Kids from Syria, Afghanistan, India, eastern Europe – a majority are from troubled parts of the world. Most of them have been in Canada for less than two years and many have mental health challenges given the situations they’ve been in,” Ali says.
He tells a story that brings home how difficult these children’s lives have been. “I walked into class and noticed a little tent in the corner. The teacher explained that sometimes the kids need a quiet space. There are toys and music and they go in there to relax. She told me about a little girl, who I met later, who came to her and said ‘teacher, I know we are to go into the tent and relax, but can I go into the tent to cry?’”
This is just one of the powerful moments Ali has experienced. Early on, he shared his own story with the children and knows that they connected with him as a kindred spirit. Teacher Diana Hernandez says “the students adore Ali. They can't wait to see him each week. He relates to them in ways that many adults can't because of his childhood experiences and his understanding of the children's culture, the high expectations he has for them but especially how kind he is with them. He couldn't be a better match for our program and the type of students we have.”

The role of business mentor

Business mentors – all of them from the local community, including a large team from Entrepreneurial Adventure founding partner BMO – are essential to the program. These deeply-engaged volunteers provide the real-world perspective and teach the practical business lessons that students need to set their entrepreneurial ideas in motion.

This is Ali’s first year as a business mentor although he is an active community volunteer for a number of other projects. He embodies the maxim “if you want something done, give it to a busy person.” He is vice chair of the board of the Canadian Mental Health Association of York Region and South Simcoe, and a past vice president on the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation’s board. He also mentors MBA and undergraduate business students at Ryerson University.
When an email landed in his BMO inbox asking for Entrepreneurial Adventure volunteers, Ali decided to add one more commitment to his plate. “This was close to my heart because I really believe that innovation is an important part of the future of our country. And there is no better place to start that investment than teaching our kids to have the confidence, the creativity, the tools and the support to start off on the right foot,” he says.

On the leading edge of innovation

Ali is exceptionally well-suited to Entrepreneurial Adventure program not only because of his personal background and his volunteer experience but also because of his unique role at BMO as managing director of process engineering and strategy.

Joining the bank 30 years ago, he has spent the past 10 to 15 years “implementing transformational change … transforming our organization’s people, processes and technology to fit with a changing environment and a changing customer.” He adds that he thinks of himself as an entrepreneur but admits “I don’t have as much risk tolerance as an entrepreneur has. They go all the way and just risk it all.” At BMO, he’s been fortunate to be able to think like an entrepreneur, explaining that “we start with a blank piece of paper and we say, okay, if we were to build a bank today or build it for five years out, what would it look like?”
Being on the leading edge of innovation within BMO dovetails nicely with the learning outcomes that guide Entrepreneurial Adventure. Ali explains that he asks the students to think about the questions that form the core of his work at BMO: “what is the meaning of the business, what does innovation mean, how do you solve a problem, how do you need to look at it from the customer’s point of view and the ever-changing market demand? If you’ve got a product and you want to deliver it, how do you make sure you keep your business healthy and your costs low?”

Investing in students leads to long-term social benefits 

Although he wondered at first how he was going to teach Grade 5 students these sophisticated concepts, he learned quickly that they were eager and able to learn. “It’s complex stuff, but these kids completely get it! Despite some of the language and other challenges, they warmed up to the program and learned rapidly. The presentations they made to their classmates, the types of questions they asked after each presentation, blew my mind. Afterwards, I sat in the car for 10 minutes trying to process what just happened. It was incredible! I’m really proud of them.”
He draws a broader lesson from these students’ exceptional performance despite their challenging circumstances. “If we talk about vulnerability and equality, we have responsibility in a community to really invest even more where there are inequalities. With a bit of investment and support these kids will become productive members of their community. Without it, they may end up in the wrong place.”

Sharing the value of mentoring with others

Ali encourages his colleagues and other business people to consider signing up as Entrepreneurial Adventure mentors next year. “I wish more people would get involved. This has a huge potential impact for every child,” he says, and he’s doing what he can to spread the word.
Ali is extremely active on social media, posting videos and photos of the work his class is doing. He believes sharing these experiences with friends, relatives and co-workers is the key to boosting their interest and involvement. “I have three people saying ‘oh, we’re definitely in’ because I come back really pumped and I share the materials. The program really sells itself,” he says.

“I underestimated the value of this personally for me. I think that deep down all of us, as humans, have this need to create value. And to see your value in front of your eyes through kids’ reactions to you, how they interact with you, how they embrace you, how they listen to you, and to see their progress ... there is nothing more satisfying and meaningful.”
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