High-octane Brina Martens charged into the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business fresh from high school in Calgary with one game plan in mind: To plow through her degree, specialize in accounting, try not to look left or right and start earning the big bucks.
“It was all about money, money, money,” says the self-described numbers person and “driven go-getter,” now 22.
A childhood friend’s father is a well-to-do chartered accountant, and what worked for him was going to work for her. That was the plan. Let’s say chief financial officer of a large corporation — and fast. “I was very focused on that,” she said.
It didn’t happen, and no one could be happier about it than Martens, holder of a bachelor of commerce from the University of Victoria with a specialization in entrepreneurship that she hopes to make work for women and girls in the developing world along with herself.
Yes, she attained co-op placements at two leading accounting firms in Calgary, but in third year, in sustainability studies about socially responsible ventures that are part of the Gustavson approach to business, “something just clicked,” Martens recalls. It was a “wow” moment of connection about using business to do good in the world, not just line her own fashion-forward pockets. In fact, fashion is how she hopes to bridge the gap between young business women who need affordable, attractive work attire and African women skilled at producing unique accessories who desperately need the income and affirmation.
Tall, poised and model-pretty, Martens is festooned with eye-catching turquoise beads made in Uganda by women who are trained in everything from tailoring to jewelry making by Living Hope, a subministry of Witoto, an organization focused on assisting talented but vulnerable women.
Accounting is good as far as it goes, but she’s now “passionate about making a positive impact on the world.”
Gustavson Dean Saul Klein, also Lansdowne Professor of International Business, said the turn-around in focus that Martens exemplifies is not unusual among Gustavson graduates.
“We attract many students who have a broader ambition than personal wealth maximization,” he said. The Gustavson School has a focus on responsible management — for example that our graduates should consider the impact of their decisions not only on themselves and their companies, but also on the broader society.”
Gustavson’s main touchstones include sustainability and social responsibility and they’re highlighted in all programs, said Klein.
The students are encouraged to recognize that business can be a force for good, he said. “We also see ourselves as an agent for social change, striving to make the world a better place. Certainly, that is not the stereotypical view of business or business schools, but we see it as well-aligned with a more socially conscious new generation of students,” Klein said.
Martens’ parents had three sons before adopting Brina from a Chinese orphanage where she lived until nearly age three, (then adopted another Chinese daughter), so she’s conscious of how lucky she was to land in a loving, comfortable home in Calgary.
Having met Victoria’s Living Hope international co-ordinator Kate Mukasa, Martens decided to put her acumen to work by writing a business plan for the organization, addressing the potential for merchandising jewelry online.
She spent two months in 2015 volunteering in Uganda — her flight and accommodations underwritten by parents Lowell and Gaylene.“It was the most rewarding two months of my life,” she said, perched on a stool in the lobby of PBG School, wearing tight black pants and stretch blazer and what may be the only spike heels on campus.
“I love everything that they did,” she said. “Living Hope believes that that the future of Uganda lies in women, that when they are self-sustaining, they can take care of their children — the average for Ugandan women is four kids.”
Before she left, she started a Blazers 4 Uganda drive in which her contacts donated 93 donated blazers — a symbol of stepping into the real world — and crammed them all in suitcases for the elated recipients there.
She hopes to open a bricks and mortar store in 2017 with a philanthropic aspect. And she blogs at ethreeone.com, described as “a network to empower women in the professional world through fashion.”
When she went to Uganda, she didn’t make a dime, but she didn’t care. The payoff in other ways was immense — feeling rewarded, part of something bigger than herself. “There was no place I’d rather be. The social return on investment was huge.”
Gustavson students by definition get wider- world experience. While many are accepted after high school, their first two years at UVic involve “anything but business” courses.
“Our students take the first two years as a general degree so they get exposure to a wider range of topics and others than some universities where students do a four-year business degree,” said associate professor Graham Brown.
Students all attend co-op programs — another way to broaden their horizons — and are required to take a fourth-year exchange course in a non-English-speaking business school, whether in Morocco or South America or China, said Sheryl Karras, director of administration for the bachelor of commerce program.
Brown underscored that many students apply to Gustavson school to understand business but with the full intent of working for charities, non-profits and other such organizations. “We attract and train students to “think differently and make an impact,” said Brown.
The sustainability pillar at UVic is promoted to potential applicants and taught to all students. “I have taught at several other universities and this emphasis is much stronger at GSB,” Brown said.
Mia Maki, an assistant professor who teaches entrepreneurial finance among other subjects, said she could see the transformation happening with Martens, whom she got to know in daily social entrepreneurship classes last summer.
Maki likes to taking social responsibility one step further, telling Gustavson students, even when they’re altruistic to remember that their beneficiaries won’t necessarily be grateful. There’s a saying attributed to activist Lilla Watson she likes them to hear: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” “It encourages them to get out in the world and find out what people need, really, not give them what you think they need ... because you care about their future and your future together.”
Students frequently come out of the Gustavson school of business quite changed from when they began, Karras said. “And with a whole new view of the world.”