The energy from those sitting in Alumni Hall was palpable, says Barbara Stymiest, looking around the room at what she described as future politicians, chief economists, social entrepreneurs, academic wunderkinds and leaders of all kinds.
“You’re about to leave this safe enclosure to tackle the world outside,” she says. “You’ve given yourselves the gift of your education, and now it’s time to see where you can take it.”
Stymiest, who recently retired from the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) as the chief operating officer, spoke to about 400 graduates from Faculty of Social Science (BMOS, three year BA, BA (ACS) and diploma in accounting) at the June 16 morning session of Western’s 297th Convocation.
The University of Western Ontario conferred an honorary Doctor of Law upon Stymiest, one of the most widely respected bankers in the industry, a trailblazer in the financial industry and the first woman in North America to lead a stock exchange.
Stymiest is best known for her leadership at RBC – Canada’s largest corporation. In 2004, she was appointed to the position of chief operating officer where she was responsible for enterprise strategy, corporate development, corporate treasury, law, compliance, brand and communications, government relations and internal audit.
Later as Group Head, Strategy, Treasury and Corporate Services, she was one of nine executives responsible for setting the overall strategic direction for RBC. During her tenure, she significantly raised the visibility of the RBC brand and improved its operational effectiveness.
Prior to joining RBC, Stymiest was Chief Executive Officer of TSX Group. While in this position, she was the first woman in North America to lead a stock exchange. During this time, she brought TSX Group’s computer systems up to date and oversaw the transition of the company from a not‐for‐profit entity to a publicly‐traded company.
While Chief Financial Officer at Nesbitt Burns, she was the first to serve as the board’s non‐executive chair. Before joining Nesbitt Burns, she was the youngest partner at Ernst & Young LLP at age 30.
Stymiest says the world really is six degrees of separation and that no matter where she has travelled or worked, she’s always been able to find a link to someone else in her life. Surfing the horizon to find a common bond with another person is a great way to start a relationship, and it helps in developing your sense of connectedness, she notes.
“Be brave in creating your place in this world,” she says. “If there is someone you want to meet, there’s always a path to lead you to them. Bring your questions, bring your energy and bring an open mind when meeting someone new and you’ll see how easy it is to form new bonds.
“Be creative in how you find your place in this world. Try on many hats to find one that fits. One way to get a breadth of experience is to find work in the voluntary sector as you make your next steps along your professional path.”
Stymiest recently retired from the bank to concentrate on board work and charitable organizations where she continues to make her mark. She is involved with many non‐profits, most notably chairing the $60‐million Toronto Rehabilitation Institute Foundation’s ‘Everything Humanly Possible’ campaign, serving as the National Campaign Leader for the ‘Campaign for Conservation’ at the Nature Conservancy and was chair of the 2005 United Way of Greater Toronto Campaign, which raised almost $100 million.
Stymiest is also a loyal volunteer and proud alumna of Western. Since her graduation, she has volunteered for both Ivey and the university swim team. In addition to serving as a member of the Ivey Advisory Board from 2001 through 2004, she has returned to Ivey several times as a guest speaker.
Stymiest challenged Western’s newest alumni to do two things: find their purpose, passion and place in the world and start the journey; and to advocate on behalf of all of those who are struggling to find their place in Canada’s workforce.
“I know that today’s economic climate continues to be tough. Starting out today is a daunting challenge. I would be totally out of touch if I were to say to you that things are easy – they’re not,” she says, adding the gift of their Western education will pay dividends for the rest of their lives.
“Use your power to change the status quo. Power listens to power. Use yours to make a lasting, positive change for our country. You are what makes Canada great and you will be what will make Canada greater.”
In her citation, Richard Ivey School of Business dean Carol Stephenson spoke of Stymiest as a trailblazer for female executives, who rose through the ranks to become one of the most widely respected bankers in the world.
“She has also been recognized as one of the most dedicated volunteers in the not‐for‐profit sector in Canada,” adds Stephenson. “In all she does, she displays an uncanny ability to manage an unfathomable quantity of demands with the utmost quality. That’s why she stands here today to be honoured for being an exemplar of leadership, integrity and excellence.”