I spent a large part of my childhood in a bomb shelter. I got married at 15 years old in a bomb shelter. I gave birth to a baby girl when I was 16 – in a bomb shelter. We escaped that bomb shelter in war-torn Lebanon in 1989 with a stamp in my passport for Canada. The stamp of freedom and opportunity.

I started my new life in Canada selling purses. I couldn’t speak English and didn’t know the difference between a loonie and toonie. But I had to make it work so I worked to make it happen. I pushed hard and not every door opened, but some did. A few people took a few chances on me and I made sure to prove them right.

Nowadays I travel the world for work. And every time I return home to Canada, I walk into a room – much like this one – and see an incredible diversity of people and culture that you don’t often experience elsewhere. I am proud to be an immigrant. I had no choice but to fight to survive and this has made me the mother, daughter, sister, friend and leader that I am today. I am proud to be this person.  

My atypical life over the past 52 years has taught me more than I can share with you all today. But here are three things I live by that have helped me become the leader I am.  

Cherish the person you are and own it

We try so hard to fit in and yet true value comes from standing out. Be proud of being different. Enjoy who you are. Success is not about meeting other people’s expectations – it’s about defining your own path and living it authentically. Always believe you are enough.  

Prioritize your health

Your health is your true wealth. Contrary to what I used to think, I am not superwoman. I neglected my own wellbeing for years and nearly died. Not taking care of yourself – both physically and mentally – robs you of your potential to be the best version of you.

Do yourself the greatest service you can by taking time to rest, reflect and nourish your mind, body and soul. If you aren’t there for yourself, you can’t be there for others.

Learn it, earn it and return it

Waterloo’s world-class education equips its students with knowledge and skills that engender success. But who you are as a person is up to you – and this will define the leader you become. I believe that we make a life from what we give, not from what we get. And this has shaped my leadership style from day one.

I urge you to give back by paying it forward – with your time and your talents, not just your money. The joy that comes from helping others is immeasurable so look for ways to help deserving people stand up and rise up. None of us achieve anything remarkable on our own.

The girl I was had to become a woman very quickly. I have experienced violence, poverty, sadness, discrimination, failures, racism, near-fatal illnesses and abuse. I have faced many struggles. Most people do – my story is not mine alone, I share it with thousands of others who are fighting for a better, safer life.

Never underestimate the power of struggle to drive success. Successful leaders shine with public glory but rarely do we see their private sacrifices and scars. Life owes you nothing – as my 86-year-old father likes to remind me. Pain is to be expected so experience it as an opportunity to stand stronger and be your best.

Rola Dagher is the global channel chief at Dell Technologies and an appointed member of the Order of Canada. She received an honorary doctorate in engineering from the Faculty of Engineering, University of Waterloo, on June 16, 2023. This article is an edited version of the speech she delivered at convocation.

Feature image (from left to right): Dean Mary Wells, Faculty of Engineering, University of Waterloo; Rola Dagher, global channel chief at Dell Technologies and Nenone Donaldson, vice-president of Advancement, University of Waterloo.

Watch this video of Rola Dagher in conversation with Nenone Donaldson, vice-president of Advancement, University of Waterloo, to learn more about transformational leadership.