Thursday, March 9 marked the end of the 2016-2017 cycle of Canada’s largest student competition: the Great Canadian Sales Competition. Beginning with almost 3,000 contestants on October 3, 2016, the final was down to 22 participants facing it off at the Google office in Toronto. One of the 22 finalists included UTM’s very own Sarzana Hasin Zafar.
Zafar, who is a fifth-year student pursuing a double major in biology and chemistry, and a minor in history of religions, says she never considered sales as an experience she would stumble upon.
“I was just sitting in the Innovation Complex one day, finishing a chemistry lab report, and I saw the GCSC ambassadors tabling; but I didn’t pay much attention to it, because just the word ‘sales’ made me think it was just for people in courses like business, marketing, and sales, etc.,” says Zafar.
“But one of the campus ambassadors came up to me and said that in Round One, you just have to make a 30 to 90-second pitch about anything you’re passionate about, and for me personally, I love any opportunity that involves public speaking. Although first I couldn’t think of what to pitch on, I decided to speak about talkdepression.ca, because I’m very passionate [about it], and have been a low-profile advocate for mental health. So I did all my research and I submitted my pitch to raise awareness about mental health.”
Zafar mentions how she never expected to go forward in the competition. “I just though I’ll try out something new, that is going to push me out of my comfort zone.” She also adds how the process of preparing for the pitch helped her refine the public speaking skills she wanted to develop further.
“I submitted the pitch and literally forgot about it.”
She continues, “I went to Ottawa for a few days in January, and then I came back, and while I was away, I had no internet, and I couldn’t check my emails. So the day after I came back, I saw an email form Katherine Perrin, [the GCSC] coordinator, congratulating me that I had made it to the top 25 percent and that I had qualified for the semi-final round.”
Zafar describes how each semi-finalist is given a sponsoring company, a case, and a client. Participants must then prepare a two-minute pitch, pretending to be a sales representative from the company, and attempt to convince the client to do business with them.
“My sponsoring company was Waste Management. It’s a brilliant company that provides environmental management solutions, and although the process is random, I actually feel very grateful that I got them as my sponsoring company,” says Zafar.
She elaborates, “I had attended a green chemistry conference last year and had been very interested in sustainability. For a while, I was even considering to do a Masters of sustainability management program here at UTM.”
“Preparing for the semifinal round was intense, and from the moment I got the email, I started taking it very seriously,” she adds. She also mentions how she was very grateful, because she did not have any background knowledge on sales and never participated in any case competitions before. Zafar also mentions that when the competition started, she didn’t know what a sales pitch was.
“The GCSC actually organized a pre-game session with Sheilla Cassidy, the regional manager for Western Canada, and she went through exactly what was expected, what they were looking for, and how they were going to score you.”
Zafar mentions how out of the six pre-game sessions, you are only required to attend one, because the sessions are all the same. Zafar attended three sessions.
“I made time for it, because just once wasn’t enough for me. I had to listen to it again and again, because I really wanted to grasp what they wanted. There were lots of opportunities to ask any questions you want, and then I took an entire day to prepare my script,” says Zafar.
After the 400 participants were given a sponsoring company from 22 sponsors, they were asked to pitch on behalf of the company, and then the sponsors chose their finalist from that pool. The chosen finalists then represented the company in the final.
Zafar received a call to be the finalist representing Waste Management, where the participants would compete through a role-play of a live sales meeting.
“I live in Mississauga and had to leave at 7 a.m. to meet my coaches at 8:30 a.m.,” says Zafar. Her coaches from Waste Management were Casey Glover (area sales director), Justin Kosenski (area sales director), and Tanya Steward-Higgs (sales manager).
“We went through a coaching session [which was] very intense, but [also was a] fun training session. It was amazing watching these experts share their knowledge and their skills with you, which was really one of the biggest opportunities that I’ve ever got,” says Zafar.
After the training session, Zafar and her coaching team headed to the Toronto Google Office to meet the other finalists.
The finalists were then divided into five rooms, where they were required to compete with each other. “The final was very challenging; we had to do a roleplay for a first sales meeting,” says Zafar.
“I do believe that I would’ve done much better if I had more experience and practice—but my coaches were happy with me, and I guess that kind of feedback means a lot to me.”
Zafar was the only finalist from The University of Toronto, which she describes as “very humbling to meet so many talented people from other schools and all over Canada. It was a very busy day, and I had an excellent time networking in the winner’s gala evening at Corus entertainment. It was so motivating to talk to people like Jamie Scarborough and Sonya Meloff, who are the co-founders of the sales talent agency.”
Zafar describes how the experience “gave me a solid idea about how I could use my degree.”
“One of the biggest things I learned was that whatever happens to you, good or bad, is your resource.”
“My first pitch was regarding mental health, and in the past, I suffered from depression. I was even on treatment, but now I’m doing amazing, and through that phase of my life, I learned that it is possible to make that experience something that is positive, and I think the fact that I was personally involved did show up in my pitch,” she continues.
Zafar also adds, “I know people tell me believe in yourself, but I’m going to be honest: I struggle to believe in myself all the time.”
Zafar advises students who are also discovering their career paths to “learn about your own strengths and weaknesses and look for opportunities and have the courage to grab them.” She also mentions that for students in biology and chemistry, in particular, to not “put yourself in a box.”
“I love taking risks and trying new things, it is uncomfortable, but is important to see that when you get out of your comfort zone, you grow. And making a pitch for Round One is not a risk—it’s scary, but there is no hazard, and if anything, there are rewards.”
Zafar talked about a conversation she had with one of the judges at the Networking Gala.
“She said don’t let anybody make you doubt yourself. Don’t let the fact that you’re a woman stop you, or what other people think of you stop you. I [had been] concerned because I was the only hijabi there, [and so] I wouldn’t be accepted, but it was so great to see people in my team celebrate my ideas and encourage and support me along the way. It made me very hopeful.”
This article has been corrected from the print edition. Sarzana Hasin Zafar’s first name had been misprinted.