At 12 years old, I pleaded with my parents to let me have a cell phone. It was imperative that I owned one—as a matter of “safety”, I argued, and not because everyone in class already had one, of course.

When Craig Kielburger was 12, he begged his parents, both of whom were schoolteachers, to let him travel to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Nepal. “Don’t worry, you won’t miss any school. I’ll go alone,” he assured them.

Kielburger was on his way to change the world. And I thought I was pitching big.

At 15, Kielburger was playing outside his home in Thornhill, Ontario when he got a very important phone call. It was an invitation to attend a week-long conference in Sweden, where he and other attendees would help answer the question: “What is the single greatest challenge facing the world today?” Kielburger made the trip. I mean, how could you say no when it’s his holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, on the other end of the line?

Endeavours such as these marked where Kielburger’s journey as a child rights activist began. He insisted on witnessing firsthand the exploitation of kids his age in the slums and sweatshops of Asia, and sought to challenge and draw attention to these issues. With the help of a few friends in his garage, he started a charity unlike any other: one where children helped children.

Twenty year later, Free the Children and Me to We, an innovative social initiative he helped build, have helped over 40 countries build more than 650 schools and provide education to 55,000 children every day. It continues to deliver a holistic and sustainable development model that provides clean water, healthcare, food security, and alternative income programs in eight developing countries.

Last Thursday,  the U of T alumnus visited UTM to address more than 300 students, alumni, and professionals. He spoke at the Institute for Management and Innovation’s Countdown to Success—an annual event where students are given an opportunity to learn, engage, and network with fellow students and community members.

Narrating the story of how his social enterprise, Me to We, grew to what it is today, Kielburger spoke about the importance of his mentorship from Oprah Winfrey, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama, especially when the organization’s prospects were grim.

“The truth is, it might have seemed like an overnight success, but this was years in the making,” he says.

It was over these many years that Kielburger and his team learned the importance of leadership. “A leader isn’t the person who crosses the finish line first. The definition of the successful leader is someone who empowers someone else,” says Kielburger.

Similar sentiments were shared by Aly Madhavji, an alumnus who attended the event. “The biggest message I got out of this was the importance of leading and inspiring others to help them get to where they want to be and find their own path,” says the 2012 UTM commerce graduate. “You need to be behind them and support them.”

Infusing the workplace with purpose was another key message that Kielburger’s experience with Me to We and the world of non-profit had taught him.

“We partnered with KPMG,” he recalls of the company, which provides crucial services to public, private, and not-for-profit organizations in Canada. “They saw us as an HR engagement strategy, where we could create meaningful intergenerational experiences between KPMG employees and their kids.”

This connection, on a deeper level, goes beyond fulfilling the company’s “bottom line”. It provides employees with a sense of purpose where they feel part of a shared enterprise.

The U of T alumnus spoke to more than 300 students, alumni, and professionals at the event.
The U of T alumnus spoke to more than 300 students, alumni, and professionals at the event.

“The simple equation of finding a cause you care about and matching it with a unique passion equals a better world, and I hope you discover this through the halls of U of T,” said Kielburger in a comment to The Medium after the event.

“He’s right. Use the passions you have to connect with a cause. Because it really hits you, once you graduate. You’ll start to connect with his vision for needing to do something that’s bigger than yourself,” expressed Rahhman El Borai, a recent UTM graduate.

However, the idea of getting involved in the non-profit sector wasn’t a foreign concept to the event attendees, such as a 2013 graduate, Aastha Sahni. With a Bachelor’s of Science and a Master of Education under her belt, she’s using her education to engage in an issue she feels strongly about.

“I’ve been thinking about mental health in the school system and incorporating mindfulness training at the middle and high school levels. I’m really passionate about this,” says Sahni.

We live in a world where almost 50,000 charities are generated every year, with 7,000 in Canada alone. And to the countless individuals who approach him every year, announcing their desire to start a “charity”, Kielburger responds with, “Can we rephrase that? Start a cause. Or better yet, support and engage with a cause that already exists. I believe the world doesn’t need more charities, but more effective charities.”

In fact, he stressed the importance of getting an education in something you feel passionate towards to help a cause—whether it’s logistics, accounting, finance, marketing, or computer science.

“Our company needs more innovation, drive, and creativity. We need what each individual in this room can bring to the non-profit sector,” Kielburger said.

“The problem is that we are raising a generation of passive bystanders. First, we assume that someone else will solve the problem. Second, we think, ‘I’m only one person; what difference can I make?’ ” he added.

This is where “We Day” comes in. Today, Me to We continues to thrive as a leader in the non-profit world with its new vision for philanthropy, which connects business passion to social purpose. Through a series of inspirational stadium-sized events, over 160,000 students from over 4,000 schools actively empower youth to take action on local and global issues.

The take-home message? There’s an unprecedented power this generation holds when each of us truly believes that we can make a difference.

As the event concluded, a Free the Children volunteer, Falak Somani, asked Kielburger, “What are you most passionate about?”

“What excites me and gets me to love the things I do is inspiring people like you to find your own passion. In fact, you’re the very answer to my question. Can I ask what’s written on your T-shirt?” he asked.

“Be the change,” Somani replied.

“And how old are you?”

“I’m 11.”