On February 16, the Human Living Library returned for a fifth year, featuring books such as Gurveer Bains (a U of T Ph.D. student), Larissa Ho (former news editor for The Medium and author of Becoming Silver Girl) and Samra Zafar (an alumni governor on U of T’s Governing Council and founder of the non-profit Brave Beginnings organization). The Medium spoke to three books at the event: Hassaan Basit, Demetra Dimokopoulos, and Rahhman El Borai.

The New Ecology of Leadership

Farah Qaiser

Today, Hassaan Basit is the chief administrative officer of Conservation Halton. But back in his undergraduate years, Basit pursued a double major in biology and psychology.

“I think I found my niche in my final year,” says Basit. “It was my fourth year when I got involved with professor Darryl Gwynne’s class in behavioural ecology. It just kind of grew from there—that’s what I wanted to be involved with.”

Basit went on to conduct an independent research project with Gwynne, where he looked at female mate choice in a specific fish species. Following his undergraduate degree, Basit left to complete a post-graduate degree in science communication at Queens University in Northern Ireland.

“I really wanted to see if there was a niche for someone who was really interested in science to be able to become a good communicator, because I always felt this huge gap between what the practitioners, experts, and researchers know, and what their time, and in some cases, ability, allows them to communicate. So, you’re left with this huge knowledge gap—and we don’t have enough knowledge brokers who can take science from the scientists and be able to communicate it to anybody. Not just the broad public, but the decision makers, policy makers, government officials, investors, businesses—all of that is crucial. You hear bad science communication every day in the newspapers,” says Basit.

Upon completion of his degree, Basit returned to Canada—specifically, to UTM. He worked for two years as a research associate in Gwynne’s lab while working as a TA as he waited for a job which combined his niche interests to appear.

For Basit, it was important to be working for an organisation that was science or evidence-based, and in a non-profit sector. “That’s nothing against the for-profit sector. I really felt that public service is where I wanted to be.”

The perfect job finally appeared with a conservation authority (Conservation Halton).

“I applied for it as a communications officer, and got the job. That was 14 years ago, and now I’m the chief administrative officer there, so I run the place,” says Basit.

According to Basit, Conservation Halton’s jurisdiction includes Milton, Halton Hills, Burlington, Oakville, and parts of Mississauga, Hamilton, and Puslinch. As a part of his role, he oversees the forestry operations, outreach programs, environmental planning, and restoration of natural resources (and much more) within this jurisdiction—including Ontario’s fourth-busiest ski and snowboard centre at Glen Eden (where almost one million visit annually). To manage all this, the organization has 145 full-time and 700 seasonal employees.

“So my job is really interesting—it’s all of that, which I really enjoy,” says Basit.

Fearless — The Path to Me

Jessica Cabral

Since graduating from UTM in 2006, Demetra Dimokopoulos has allowed her passions to take her on a “turbulent” journey through the professional realms of publishing, law, and business. As one of the human books at UTM’s Living Library Event, Dimokopoulos reveals the challenges of finding work in the midst of the recession and the importance of being open-minded to change.

Dimokopoulos began her undergraduate studies at UTM with the plan to pursue a degree in forensics. At the end of her first year, Dimokopoulos didn’t get into the program, and was unable to declare it as her major. At that time, the department recommended that students take professional writing and communication courses to strengthen their communication skills, so Dimokopoulos enrolled in PWC classes with hopes of  reapplying to the forensic program again the following year. Dimokopoulos explains that taking the PWC classes was the defining moment for her university experience.

“By the time the next year came around to switch majors, I didn’t want to. I really found that the flexibility of the program and the space to be creative tapped into something I didn’t know was there. It was a good way to express myself,” she explains of the PWC program. “That love led me to the publishing industry.”

After completing her double major in PWC and psychology, Dimokopoulos took a short college publishing program at Humber College. The program involved an internship that placed Dimokopoulos directly into the industry. Then the economy began to decline, and Dimokopoulos lost her job during the recession.

“I met someone while I was in one of my writing jobs who had said: why don’t I try a paralegal program. I was applying to law school when a lot of people lost their jobs in the recession, so there were twice as many people applying,” she says. “Sometimes specific people that you meet along the way, without realizing it, send you on a different path.”

Dimokopoulos retrained as a paralegal and worked in law for approximately four to five years until her law firm closed. With a paralegal license and no job, Dimokopoulos attended an event targeted towards women in the legal profession who needed guidance and assistance in transitioning to different positions or even returning to the world of law from things like maternity leave.

“It was at that event that someone said, ‘After talking to you for five minutes, I think an MBA would be best for you,’ but I had always avoided it because my stereotype of an MBA graduate was someone who worked in finance, and that wasn’t for me,” says Dimokopoulos. “But it turns out with further research, the degree matched my personality so much better. Now after doing my M.B.A, it turns out I do like finance a little too.”

Dimokopoulos completed her M.B.A in 2015 at Copenhagen Business School in Denmark.

“I had at that point done all of my education in Canada, and I knew that I wanted to get outside of my bubble, so my focus was that when I did my next step, my big next degree, it would be abroad. That way I kind of get the travelling, international experience and everything all at the same time. I wanted to pick a country that was welcoming to female business leaders, and Denmark really stood out to me in that respect,” she says. “Our class ratio was 40 percent women and 60 percent men, so 40-60 is pretty good. My program specifically focused on sustainability, entrepreneurship, and leadership.”

On the first day of school in Denmark, Dimokopoulos’ professor hired her to be a business case writer. To write the case studies, she worked with the Copenhagen School of Entrepreneurship on campus. Her involvement and interaction with the entrepreneurs opened her eyes to the life of operating a business.

Life in Denmark also exposed Dimokopoulos to health and fitness. She explains that she biked everywhere, because it was a more efficient method of transportation in the country and she loved it. This introduction helped Dimokopoulos refine her passion and focus on the career she wanted to build when she returned to Canada.

“When I came back to Canada, I knew I wanted to focus on my health more, so I took the fitness certification. Then I thought, ‘Okay, my entrepreneur community is in Denmark, how do I get into that here and have a network?’ I tried meetup.com, and found Startup Toronto. It’s been great—you meet entrepreneurs and they have seminars to help you along the way,” she explains. “Right now I’m looking at how I’m going to combine writing, fitness, and health writing with being a personal trainer. I don’t know yet if I want to teach or write about it, I’m just going with the flow.”

Dimokopoulos believes that time management is the key to a successful academic career and that students should study subjects that they enjoy during their time at UTM.

“At the end of the day, what I’ve found is that unless you’re in a very specialized degree, focus on studying things that you like, because most people end up in jobs that don’t have anything to do with their degree. Education is power. I may not have become a lawyer, but I don’t regret the years I spent learning law,” Dimokopoulos says. “Follow your passions. Never stop learning. It makes life more exciting when you’re learning new things.”

Students had the chance to sign up to speak to over 10 “books” for a 20-minute time slot.

Thinking Outside the Box

Farah Qaiser

While many university alum may reminisce about their undergraduate years, Rahhman El Borai has a very different memory.

“I was taking four courses every year up until third year. And before I went into third year, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to spend another year here. I need to get the hell out,’” El Borai recalls.

El Borai had started his B.Sc. degree at UTM in 2010, but this sudden revelation prompted him to take on extra courses and even enrol in summer school. He graduated in 2014.

“And that was it—I had enough of university. I wanted to get a chance to see what it was like in the real world. I didn’t really know what to do. I thought to myself, ‘I have this degree in chemistry. I have a lot of experience in a laboratory […], so let me just find a job in a lab.’”

Within a month of graduation, El Borai had an interview for a job in a laboratory. The day of the interview arrived, and the interview was going well. But in the middle of it, the interviewer asked El Borai: “Why are you here?”

“I knew it wasn’t the interview process anymore. He was trying to get a meaningful answer out of me,” he says. The interviewer went on to tell him that this job offered no growth or career path. While El Borai was shocked at hearing this, he decided to ignore the interviewer’s advice, and continued to hunt for jobs within a lab to see what it was really like.

“I didn’t enjoy being in a lab during university. I don’t like wearing gloves, or goggles, or a lab coat, none of that. So, I was thinking, ‘Let me see what it’s like when I’m actually making money out of it.’”

El Borai did successfully land a job within a laboratory—and he hated it. “It just wasn’t me,” he says, and believed that his personality did not match with lab work.

“I like going and bugging people […]. I’m curious to know about people. I don’t like being in a place where it’s just your job,” says El Borai. Instead, he wanted to pursue a career in pharmaceutical sales.

“People always gave sales a bad rep. But listen, every company is built off sales. If there were no sales, no company would exist.”

Soon, El Borai secured an interview with a recruiter, but sadly, was turned down due to his lack of experience. He went on to secure sales experience, but what he was doing was “unfulfilling.”

“That was important to me. I didn’t care what people thought was a good job. I cared more about what my input was in society. My job in downtown Toronto felt purely transactional. I was selling to clients. They were making money and we were making money. There are people suffering from sickness—who cares about them? That’s how I felt it was like.”

With sales experience under his belt, an expanding network and his prior chemistry knowledge, El Borai, 22 at this point, was now confident about heading into his desired career path. “Why would anyone not want to hire me for pharmaceutical sales?” says El Borai.

Through networking on LinkedIn, job applications, and even cold-calling the head of HR at a company, El Borai finally caught a break. Today, he is doing what he loves as a pharmaceutical sales representative.

“I’m doing a job where I get to integrate my passion for chemistry and learning. I’m always learning about different products and different therapeutic areas. Now I’m in a career path that’s fulfilling: the products that I’m having conversations with physicians about—they help people […]. At the same time, I’m not compromising my well-being, because it’s doing something that I enjoy.”

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