By: Namish Modi (he/him)

Dr. Norah McRae (she/her) is passionate about sustainability and lifelong learning.

McRae, the associate provost of Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) recently translated her passion into action by completing a leading national education program.

The Rotman Directors Education Program (DEP) is offered by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and the Institute of Corporate Directors. DEP aims to help experienced Canadian directors overcome boardroom challenges. The program focuses on topics such as strategic foresight, financial oversight and risk management. Since its inception, 7,300 directors have completed DEP.

McRae especially appreciated the focus on environment, social and governance (ESG) topics/issues in the program which included a four-part course with 12 sessions. She completed the program in February 2023 and was recognized in The Globe and Mail for the achievement.

“The Rotman Directors Education Program provided me with a very good refresher on some of those key business concepts of running an organization, as well as a great introduction to some of the key challenges facing industry right now,” says McRae.

A topic within the DEP is the importance of ESG reporting, which aligns with CEE’s interest in preparing students to advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

According to McRae, the DEP reinforces that shareholders look to companies to report on their ESG.

Our job is to make sure that our students are aware of the importance of ESG and the SDGs. We want to help them to see themselves having a role to play, hopefully in a positive way, to advance these critical issues.

Norah McRae, associate provost, CEE

In 2022, McRae co-authored research centered around how Waterloo co-op students are helping to advance the SDGs. Educational institutions and students all play a vital role in taking on global challenges and ensuring a sustainable future. CEE understands these challenges and is committed to advancing the University’s Sustainability Strategy.

“The SDGs are a very important foundation for the things that are important to Canadian industries,” says McRae. She is confident that her learnings from the program will help in her roles as vice-chair and head of the secretariat of the World Association for Co-operative and Work-Integrated Education (WACE). Waterloo is the home institution for WACE, an organization that focuses on advancing co-operative and work-integrated education.

Through DEP, McRae developed connections with a strong contingent of like-minded leaders. “When you spend 12 days in person with a group of people, you build relationships and you have a lot of time to explore what is going on for them,” says McRae. “There have been several connections already made for our work in CEE because of the networking through the program.”

Completing DEP has been on McRae’s to-do list for a while but was delayed during the pandemic as she wanted to participate in person. She found the conversations in-between classes and chats during lunches helpful in networking and building strong connections.

Read the full interview:

What motivated you to participate in the ICD-Rotman DEP program? 

I completed my MBA a while ago. I thought DEP would be a good refresher on some of those key business concepts of running an organization and a great introduction to some key challenges the industry is facing.

For example, ESG — what does that mean for the industry and how are they starting to think about it? Getting a good overview of what is going on in the corporate world and the effects of different government policies. What does that mean for our work? In terms of the SDGs, in CEE we are helping students to have an appreciation for what is going to be extremely important. Every company and organization are thinking about how to address the SDGs. How do we talk about them? How do we report on them? How do we measure our progress against them?

Many people think the SDGs are an esoteric activity [understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge]. However, they are a very important foundation for the things that Canadian industry is thinking about.

The other motivation is that Waterloo is now the home institution for the World Association (WACE), which is a global non-profit organization focused on co-operative and work-integrated education. It’s always good to have practice on governance.

Finally, excellent networking. There are some top industry leaders from across Canada who participate in this program. When you spend 12 days in person with a group of people, you build relationships. You have a lot of time to explore what’s going on with them and understand what they are worried about. There have been several connections already made for CEE because of networking through the program.

What are some of your major takeaways/learnings from the program?

One of my key takeaways is the connection between ESG and the SDG, and how everyone is thinking about net zero. What do we do? How do we prepare? What’s the talent? We need to be prepared for that. That certainly was a big takeaway that we’re on the right track. Some of the other takeaways were around some of the pressures that the industry is facing and labour and talent. How to manage all of that is clearly a pressure point.

Is there any advice you’d give someone about to take the course?

Very generously, the program did have an online option and I could have done that. It was my intention to do this a few years ago, but I held off until the in-person option was available. I am glad I did that. Along with the learning within the classroom, it was the in-between conversations where there was a lot of value.

In an online environment it's hard to have those in-between conversations. In person, you wander up to someone and sit down and have lunch with them and have a little chit-chat. It's hard to do that online.  I think that would be one piece of advice if you want to do it make the effort to do it in person.

If you were tasked with convincing a leader to apply to the program, how would you do it?

If you want to be on any board, including for a national non-profit that is working on a cause that you care about, like the SickKids Hospital Foundation or a university for example, this is becoming really a baseline credential.

Is there anything else you specifically learned that may be key to the future of CEE? Is there anything else you learned that can help us as an organization and how we can help our students advance the SDGs?

Coming on the tail of being in Ottawa a couple of weeks ago, every single organization is saying, “how are we going to get to net zero?”, “How are we going to do it?”, “What’s going to happen to us if we don’t?”

Thinking about how each of our students can apply themselves to this task at hand, and to be very consciously thinking about that, I feel is very important for the future of CEE.

When we are positioning this to our students, we’ve got to talk about it as being important for everybody. No matter what area you’re studying in and no matter where you’re working.

For example, thinking about big questions like: How are we going to get electric vehicles in this country? How are we going to get ourselves weaned off oil? How are we going to reduce our waste? How are we going to make sure people have clean drinking water in the northern part of this country? It's all of us, everywhere — we need to make the language a bit more serious.

Q: There’s a perception that SDGs are only about “going green” but tell us how it is much more than that?

The Rotman DEP certainly reinforced for me that shareholders are looking for companies to report on their ESG. Even if you don’t care at all about ESG, your shareholders are going to care about how it impacts your stock prices.

Our job is to make sure that our students are at least aware of the SDGs, and that they can see themselves having a role to play, hopefully in a positive way, towards advancing some of these very important critical issues.