Sue Paish ran through a series of reactions when she was told she was to be this year’s University of Victoria Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year.
The chief executive of Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster and former CEO of Life Labs and Pharmasave, said the honour was at turns humbling, embarrassing and thrilling, though in true entrepreneurial fashion, Paish could also see opportunity in the award.
“I am absolutely thrilled to be considered a friend and part of the UVic ecosystem through this award, because for decades I have been a supporter and admirer of UVic,” she said in an interview.
The Gustavson School of Business annual award recognizes an inspirational entrepreneur who has had a significant impact on the global community through business leadership.
Paish, who is an appointee to Queen’s Counsel in B.C. and named by the Women’s Executive Network to its Hall of Fame of Canada’s Top 100 Most Influential Women, received her award Wednesday during the Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year sold-out gala at the Victoria Conference Centre.
Paish said she’s a “big fan” of how the university, as a start-up school, was one of the first to put computers in classrooms and was a leader in integrating work experience into post-secondary education with its co-op programs.
And with the award she hopes to have a platform to help the school and its students.
“My immediate reaction whenever I’ve been honoured [with an award] is, first of all, wow, do I deserve this? Then it’s how can I help this organization?” she said.
That second question was answered fairly easily.
Paish noted she is just the second woman to receive the award since it was started in 2004. Linda Hasenfratz of the Linamar Corporation was honoured in 2016.
“There are very few women on that list. If I can in some way inspire women across B.C., across Canada, to do things they have not done before — to be fearless and challenge themselves and see they can be recognized in this way — then maybe this might help,” she said. “I hope that some women in business or even in school right now will say: ‘I guess that women can join that list.’ ”
Saul Klein, dean of the Gustavson School of Business, said it was important to honour another accomplished woman with the award.
“I don’t think we chose her because she is a woman, but certainly having a recipient who better represents our population is important for us,” he said.
Klein said the male-dominated list of recipients reflects the history of businesses being built over the last 30 to 50 years, so there is a bias toward men who were primarily responsible for that.
He said the school has tried to take a broader look at candidates.
“It does get us to think a little differently about how we look at entrepreneurs and what kind of skills they have, so we don’t just reinforce those kinds of biases,” he said.
Paish, a mother of three daughters and grandmother to one, said her entire career has been about taking on the unknown and facing down new challenges.
Paish led transformative change in her previous position as chief executive of LifeLabs Medical Laboratory Services, where she grew the company to be the nation’s leader in diagnostic services. Prior to that, in her role as chief executive of Pharmasave Drugs, she implemented new dispensary management technology that has become the Canadian standard.
Klein said the school was impressed with Paish’s experience at creative and innovative thinking. “We thought it was an inspiring story about entrepreneurial vision and leadership and putting something together that is really creative,” he said.
Paish is now running the Vancouver-based Digital Technology Supercluster, which has a goal of establishing the country as a global leader in digital technology by bringing together companies, post-secondary institutions, research organizations and non-profit groups.
The hope is projects approved and supported through the organization will foster economic growth across Canada by delivering jobs, increased GDP and advancing the country’s competitiveness. “It is exciting, rewarding, inspiring, terrifying and pressure-ridden every half hour,” said Paish.
To date, the supercluster has funded seven projects, representing an investment of $40 million.
Those underway include the creation of a data platform that can securely share and leverage health data, and the creation of a digital twin of a manufacturing process that will simulate factory processes in a virtual environment in order to improve processes, training and the end product.
Paish notes they have put a call out for more proposals and believes they could have as many as 30 projects underway by the end of this year.
“Sue’s ability to lead companies and people through technological transformations with great success is a quality we’re excited to celebrate,” said Klein. “Our students and business leaders will learn from her exceptional leadership, teamwork and innovation skills.”
As accomplished as Paish is, she is still not sure she belongs with the list of previous Gustavson School honourees. “When one looks at the other people who have received this recognition from UVic, they are unbelievable leaders in the economy and I am really honoured to be considered even in the same universe as people such as David Black and others on that list,” she said.
However, she believes she shares at least one trait with most of the people on the list — a need to give back to the community.
Paish said her life purpose has always been to build a better Canada for her kids, and by extension everyone else.
“My mission in life is to do whatever I can to build a better B.C. for them, and that looks a lot more like giving back and helping organizations, companies, communities and individuals than it does talking about myself,” she said. “It isn’t just about the paycheque or the title or rising through the ranks, it’s about building connectivity, the friendships and relationships with people around you.”
Paish said she strives never to leave a conversation without asking at some point how she can help. “One of the common threads on that [Distinguished Entrepreneurs Award] list is I know they have spent a lot of time in their lives thinking about how they can help other people, and not just after they hit it big,” she said.
Paish said she hopes the award gives her the opportunity to talk with UVic students about their goals and ideas, but she is open to whatever suggestions the school has for her to interact.
- 2018: Stewart Butterfield, Slack
- 2017: Don Mattrick, Microsoft
- 2016: Linda Hasenfratz, Linamar Corp.
- 2015: David Foster, music producer
- 2014: Dennis Washington, industrialist
- 2013: Brandt C. Louie, London Drugs
- 2012: Dennis (Chip) Wilson, Lululemon
- 2011: JR Shaw, Shaw Communications
- 2010: Alex Campbell Sr., Thrifty Foods
- 2009: Sir Terence Matthews, Mitel Corp.
- 2008: Clive Beddoe,WestJet
- 2007: David Black, Black Press
- 2006: Gwyn Morgan, Encana
- 2005: Dave Ritchie, Ritchie Bros.
- 2004: Jeff Mallett, Yahoo!