Last Tuesday, social entrepreneur Rumeet Billan, president of Jobs in Education and twice named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network, spoke at the UTM Alumni Association’s first Backpack to Briefcase presentation of the year, titled “Labels, Limits and Leadership”.
In the cozy atmosphere of the MiST Theatre, which was filled with the smell of fresh pizza, Billan opened up about her struggle with feeling adequate as an undergrad student, how her involvement in the community enhanced her career, and the value of experience in shaping who she is.
Billan shared for the first time how she got a 33% on her first university test, a mark that came as a shock after getting straight As in high school and made her question whether she was smart enough for university. The experience forced Billan to self-reflect, and she realized that she needed to take responsibility for herself and adapt her studying for university. Billan is passionate about education, and founded Jobs in Education, now one of Canada’s largest job boards, while she was still an undergraduate at UTM.
According to statistics at the time, 80% of small businesses went bankrupt within a year or two. “Three weeks after I started my business, my competitors were offering the same service for free. Why pay for something if you can get it for free?” Billan said. She feared how easily and quickly she could lose her business and realized that she needed to make Jobs in Education stand out from its competitors.
Billan shared that as a first-generation immigrant to Canada from India, her parents always told her and her siblings that they came to Canada to offer their children a good education, and made sacrifices for that to happen. Billan wanted to be able to give the gift of education in the same way her parents had given it to her. As a result, Billan came up with two bottom lines for her small business: profit and social impact.
Billan shared a quote from Umair Haque: “What is it that breaks your heart about the world? It’s there that you begin to find what moves you. If you want to find your passion, surrender to your heartbreak.” Billan showed pictures of one-room schools in Africa—bare walls covered in holes, four students to a bench, all sharing one book—and asked the audience to compare that with their own memories of their grade schools. In its first year, Jobs in Education built a primary school for such children. Billan pointed to one boy in a threadbare uniform in the pictures, and explained that to go to school, the children needed uniforms, which meant school was still inaccessible for orphans.
The next year, Jobs in Education made it possible for orphans to attend school by funding programs for textbooks and uniforms. Billan explained that systematic challenges such as tribal rivalries, politics, and fear of rape kept villagers from going to postsecondary schools, which are located only in the cities, resulting in a lack of qualified teachers in rural areas. This led Jobs in Education to develop and build a teacher training centre in rural Kenya.
Jobs in Education, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, has built three primary schools in Africa and South America, contributed to the Canadian organization Breakfast for Learning for a year, and provided over 60 scholarships for students in Peru, Ecuador, and Kenya.
Billan said that her circumstances had changed and that she is no longer able to go abroad to visit her initiative sites, something that’s very important to her, so she teaches leadership courses to empower her students to go instead. In her course, Billan and her students discuss how no two people will interpret an experience the same way because they are shaped by their previous experiences. Our interactions shape our lives, said Billan, and the labels we place on ourselves or on others limit the perception of our capabilities.