Every graduating class must be prepared for new challenges. But the class of 2020 confronts a particularly difficult reality, entering the workforce in the midst of a recession and pandemic.

On June 5, alumni from the Faculty of Math participated in a virtual event to celebrate the class of 2020 and share strategies for success in these difficult times.

 Here are a few of the strategies for success our participants shared:

1. Be curious

“Curiosity—constantly learning and asking the right questions—is so important to success, particularly for the next generation,” said Dave McKay (BMath ’87, DMath ’18), President and CEO of RBC.

McKay said curiosity helped him rise through the ranks at RBC. At every stage of his career, he took a keen interest in the work of colleagues and bosses, noting the unique challenges of their jobs.  As a result, when opportunities arose to take promotions, he was always ready for his new responsibilities.

McKay added that curiosity can be cultivated even if not currently employed. “I would use this opportunity to learn something different that you might not have time to do when you start to get busy with your careers,” said McKay. “It feels quite dire listening to the news, so listen less and go read a book, paint, run, write music, learn a new skill.”

2. Consider entrepreneurship

Don’ let the current economic situation discourage you from pursuing entrepreneurship, urges Michelle Hung (BMath ’08), author and founder of The Sassy Investor. “If you feel like something's calling out to you and you never do it, it's very regrettable,” said Hung.

Hung reached a crossroads in her career when she was laid off from her job of six years on Bay Street. After a series of rejections from employers, Hung vowed to become her own boss. “I said, ‘I'm never handing out another resume again,’” recalls Hung.

Hung hasn’t looked back since, having written a book, The Sassy Investor, and launched a successful business as a personal finance expert.

To determine if you’re cut out for entrepreneurship, Hung recommends starting small: “You can try a side hustle or start freelancing and see how you are at managing your own time and business expenses.”

3. Take chances and be undeterred by failure

Sam Pasupalak (BCS ’12), co-founder of Maluuba, believes a “high risk appetite” and the ability to bounce back from failure are paramount to a successful career.

Pasupalak knows a thing or two about risk. In building Maluuba and seeking to create natural language understanding technology, Pasupalak pitted himself against tech world giants, like Google, Facebook and Apple.

At times his journey was bumpy. In the early days, he was so short of money that he was forced to sleep on the couches of his friends. But he persevered, and eventually sold the company to Microsoft in 2017.

You're going to have setbacks, but then every day is a new day.

SAM PASUPALAK, Alumnus and entrepreneur

To survive the highs and lows of any career, “you need to have the thick skin of a rhino,” Sam Pasupalak told the virtual audience on June 5. “You're going to have setbacks, but then every day is a new day.”

4. Make time for yourself

At a time of crisis, some people throw all their energy into their work, whether that’s searching for a job or fighting to keep a business afloat. But Rudy Karson (BMath ’79), managing partner at Karlani Capital, says that working long hours can prove counterproductive, sapping you of the resilience needed to thrive in turbulent times.

“If I look at my life, I have rarely been busy,” said Karson.  “If you go back to the Chinese culture, busy is made up of two words—slow and death—so every time I’m busy I’m slowly dying.”

No matter how difficult his work life has become—and he’s overcome three insolvencies—Karson makes time for what he calls his “daily practices.” These include exercising and reflecting on what he’s grateful for each night before bed.

5. Don't take a "junk job"

Larry Smith (BA '68, MA '75), director of Waterloo’s Problem Lab and Adjunct Associate Professor of Economics, has seen this fate befall many students in a recession. Anxious about a poor economy, they accept jobs “for companies going nowhere,” “in areas they don’t find intellectually interesting,” and “in technologies that don’t have growth potential.”

The result? “They end up in my office five years later, trying to escape a trap they set for themselves,” said Smith. Sadly, the experience they’ve acquired in these jobs is not transferable to other fields.

But what are the alternatives if you’re struggling to find employment? Smith says students would be better off pursuing graduate studies, while waiting for the economy to recover, and adding another degree to their resume. Smith has also seen students succeed in a recession by pursuing a very targeted job search.

“These students look for a company that needs something specific that they can do,” says Smith. “They say to the employer very directly, ‘I know you're struggling and your company’s under severe pressure. And I think my skills can help you lower your costs, so that you live to fight another day.’”