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“Dare to do things differently”: Retiring faculty remember SFU Beedie’s unconventional early beginnings

May 04, 2022

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Harbour Centre is pictured here in archival footage.

Starting with its early commitment to community engagement and innovation, Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business has embraced a radical and unconventional ethos from the beginning.

Originally established as the Faculty of Business Administration in 1982, SFU Beedie has, since its inception, celebrated academic freedom and dialogue by bringing in diverse, progressive, interdisciplinary and innovative faculty.

“We thought of ourselves as a radical campus at the time,” says Blaize Horner Reich, RBC Professor of Technology and Innovation and former SFU Beedie dean. “And that certainly held appeal because it gave us the academic freedom and support to achieve our goals. Some universities can be pretty locked down. But we’re not locked down. We promote innovation and entrepreneurship—we do interesting stuff.”

SFU Beedie embraced that ethos of radicalism through a series of firsts: the first Executive and Management of Technology MBA programs in Canada and the first and only Indigenous Business Leadership Executive MBA in North America. The school’s emphasis on innovation also led to the birth of the Invention to Innovation (i2I) program, the Charles Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection initiative to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in the business community.

“All of these initiatives are so important and they also mirror what’s going on in society,” says Dianne Cyr, professor of management information systems at SFU Beedie. “For a business school to be effective and contemporary, it has to keep pace.”

“SFU was unlike other more traditional academic institutions at the time in that we were not cloistered in our academic community,” says Carolyne Smart, professor emerita, former dean of SFU Beedie and one of the school’s first faculty hires. “From the beginning, we were focused on engaging with the local communities and businesses.”

These days, SFU Beedie is known for its connection to the local business community, with its Segal Graduate School of Business situated in the heart of downtown Vancouver. At the time, however, it was considered unconventional for a university to have a campus downtown and many faculty members were resistant to the idea of a downtown location.

Daniel Shapiro, professor of global business strategy and former dean at SFU Beedie, saw the value in the business faculty’s downtown location early on. He lobbied to have his Burnaby campus office relocated to SFU’s Vancouver campus and was the first faculty member to have a permanent office downtown.

“I really liked that SFU had taken the initiative to set up a downtown campus,” says Shapiro. “Being downtown for a business school of our sort is essential.”

SFU Beedie’s progressive and innovative spirit has continually been carried out by its entrepreneurial and forward-thinking student and alumni communities, whom faculty members describe as “fantastic” and “some of the most accomplished people ever.” SFU Beedie alumni have gone on to innovate in a wide range of industries from clean tech to agriculture to sustainable transportation—and much more.

“SFU students have part-time jobs, they volunteer, they have families and they’re very engaged,” says Reich. “Not all my colleagues at other universities have such a joy in the students they teach. I’m interested in what our students do—they teach me. It’s great.”

“I think there’s never been a class where I didn’t learn something I didn’t know from one or more students,” says Shapiro. “And in every class, there were several people who I felt privileged to have known—because I knew they were going to go on to do something that mattered. It’s a gift to me, to be able to meet those people in such numbers.”

“Dare to do things differently,” says Cyr. “That ties back to radical innovation, which was at the heart of SFU Beedie since the beginning. It’s easy to be complacent and fall into conservative ruts. But if we can continue to innovate and do things differently and blur boundaries, then that has to be a good thing.”