Toronto Star: Immigrant extends a hand-up

Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Aditya Jha pause on the patio of Torontos Boulevard Club during a Project Beyshick reception this week. (LUCAS OLENIUK/TORONTO STAR)

Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Aditya Jha pause on the patio of Torontos Boulevard Club during a Project Beyshick reception this week. (LUCAS OLENIUK/TORONTO STAR)

But Jha, who came to Canada in 1994, turned out to be a picky philanthropist. Just writing cheques is not his cup of tea; he prefers to be personally involved in causes he supports. So his conscience was pricked when he went to a black-tie dinner last fall at which Stan Beardy, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, was speaking.
"My people are suffering," Beardy told the crowd.

"That really affected me," says Jha, 49, who was born into a family of modest means in Nepal and educated in India.

"I thought, I have been here such a short time and Canada has been so good to me. How come people who have lived here for centuries aren't sharing in this country's economic prosperity? Something's wrong here."

Last December, Jha flew to Thunder Bay to consult with Beardy and other native officials, and together they devised Project Beyshick — a program that would pair native youth with Toronto's corporate chiefs in an effort to foster entrepreneurship and business skills.

This week, the program became a reality, as 11 young people from remote communities arrived in Toronto.

For 2 1/2 days, they lived the same dizzying schedules as the big wheels whose jobs they were shadowing. For some, like Myra Beardy, it was their first trip off the reserve.

"Everything in Toronto is so tall. It's hard to see the sky," says Beardy, 17, who was confounded by the tech jargon and big figures thrown around in meetings at Bell Canada, where she followed executive vice president Mike Cole.

Autumn Yesno was initially nervous about meeting Denis Frappier, executive vice president of AMJ Campbell Van Lines, but he soon put her at ease.

"He's very nice and welcoming, and pretty cool for a big boss," says Yesno, 22, who sat in on meetings to discuss company efforts to comply with employment equity regulations and plans to buy wireless handheld devices.

Vanessa Moonias learned about teamwork watching her mentor, Trillium Health Centre CEO Ken White. "He's very down-to-earth and worked with people to get things done," says Moonias, 23.

Tracey Prevost, who lives on a reserve with a population of 300 near Cochrane, was placed with Isabel Bassett.

Lunching with the TV Ontario head, attending her high-level meetings and calling her by her first name were all pretty cool. But they didn't match the thrill of being on the set of the TVO Kids shows — The Space and Gisele's Big Backyard — both of which the 18-year-old watched while growing up.

"That was mind-blowing awesome!" says Prevost, the first person in her family to finish high school — a feat she credits to her mother's encouragement and the shows' educational emphasis.

Education is important, but it's not always enough, says Jha, who is married with a 6-year-old son. "You need exposure to opportunities and to power to give you that `aha!' experience."

That's where his program comes in. It's funded by POA Foundation, a name that incorporates his first initial as well as those of Payman Hodaie and Omid Hodaie, business partners who prefer to stay out of the limelight. (Jha prefers not to reveal how much they spent on the project.) The foundation has also contributed to Trillium Health Centre and Ryerson University, among others.

Jha's philosophy is straightforward. "We all hesitate to admit the power of money, but that's reality. No community gets respect in this country unless it has made serious money," says Jha, who is busy building a new information technology company, Osellus Inc.

But he admits he knew little about Canada's native community until that fateful dinner. "I was too busy running my business," he says with his trademark grin, adding that he has since educated himself on the issues.

"We're spending billions to alleviate poverty in the world when we have third world conditions right here." 

Aditya Jha Toronto Star QuoteJha personally approached about 40 executives to take part, including those at RBC Financial Group and GlobalMaxx  Technologies. Each readily agreed, though time conflicts forced some to decline in the end.

The program has the enthusiastic support of Alvin Fiddler, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, whose territory comprises 49 communities and covers two-thirds of Ontario.

Developing business acumen in young people is critical to its survival and prosperity, he says. The territory is the next frontier for resource development, such as forestry and mining. The province recently pledged to build all-weather roads linking some communities now accessible only by air.

"It will bring a lot of development. We have to manage the change so that it becomes a positive experience for us," says Fiddler, who attended a dinner reception for the youth and executives Thursday night at the tony Boulevard Club. "If we don't train our young people to build their knowledge and skills, we'll get left behind again."

Lt. Gov. James Bartleman, the dinner speaker, praised Jha's "pure altruism."

"He has been very far-sighted in organizing this. What I like about this is that you have somebody who is from one of the newest cultural groups to come to Canada, from India, who is helping out our aboriginal people."

Nishnawbe Aski Nation leaders, who picked the nine female and two male youth participants, weren't exactly flooded with applicants at first, because of fears about what would be expected.

Those chosen were already self-motivated and on the right track, having avoided the pitfalls common in their communities, including high rates of suicide, teen pregnancy and dropout.

Prevost, articulate and poised, says most of her friends had babies by age 14 and resigned themselves to never leaving the reserve. But she wanted more.

"I come from a very negative background with lots of drugs, alcohol and physical abuse, but I soldiered through it."

Her stint at TVO sparked an interest in broadcasting, though Prevost admits to almost falling asleep during a particularly boring meeting — she excused herself, went to the washroom and threw cold water on her face to stay awake. She counts herself lucky to be paired with Bassett, the only female CEO to take part in Project Beyshick.

"I'm in awe of Isabel," Prevost says. "She's the first woman I met with such a strong handshake. I got the feeling right away she was confident and powerful."

Bassett was impressed with Prevost, too: "She's very strong. I wasn't that secure at her age."

Learning is a two-way process, says Hari Panday, CEO of ICICI Bank, who mentored Mark Meekis, 26. "This was so rewarding," Panday says. "I learned more in the last two days about First Nations people than I ever knew."

Meekis, who joined meetings discussing multi-million-dollar loans and the opening of a new branch, learned the importance of time management.

"He has one meeting right after another. Like right now, he's still working," said Meekis, as Panday checked his Palm Pilot during lunch.

Jha hopes to make the program an annual event, boosting youth to 50 next year and taking it international by offering placements in the U.S. and India.

His goal is simple: "The idea is to change mindsets. If they can walk away with just one thought, it should be: `I can do it, too. I can dream big.'"

That has happened for most of the participants, including Prevost. "You know, the sky's the limit now," she says.

"No one's going to hold me back."

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