2018 Best EMBAs: Rupinder Dhillon, University of Toronto (Rotman)

Rupinder Dhillon   

University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management

A strong female leader pursuing a rewarding career while balancing a rich family life.”

Age: 40

Hometown: Toronto, Ontario

Family Members: Robin Bains (Husband), Rian Bains (Son, aged 5), Ranak Bains (Son, aged 1 and a half)

Fun fact about yourself: I once appeared on a televised panel discussion to debate all things Star Trek.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Honours Bachelor of Commerce from McMaster University (with a minor in Computer Science)

Where are you currently working? Bell Canada, Director of Machine Learning and Data Science. I lead a team of highly skilled individuals who build predictive models and machine learning solutions to improve customer experience. We are currently working on an innovative and collaborative roadmap to bring AI capabilities to the organization.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: Advisory Board – Rotman’s Master of Management Analytics Program; Started internal “Bell Canada Women in Business Intelligence” initiative to make female technical leaders more visible and facilitate mentorship and coaching opportunities; Various speaking engagements (Toronto Women’s Data Group, AI Toronto); former President of the Toronto Area SAS Society; Mentor for young women in STEM.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? As part of the Creative Destruction Lab program, I have been incredibly fortunate to work with a social enterprise start up that is focusing their efforts on civilian protection in Syria. Working with that team and seeing first-hand their passion, grit, tenacity and unwavering commitment to their mission has been an incredibly humbling experience. I’ve been amazed by how the company’s leaders are able to give their teams the clarity and the focus needed to keep executing amidst the horrible circumstances unfolding in the region. I have no doubt that the company will continue to do amazing things under their leadership and I am proud to be a part of their journey.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Having the opportunity to help lead and shape Bell Canada’s AI roadmap is the most exciting challenge I have faced so far and I believe that it has been a culmination of my past experiences and career choices that have prepared me to take up the challenge. Throughout my career, I have not been afraid to take on new opportunities that have pushed me outside of my comfort zone and I’ve always been driven by the need for both personal and collective team growth. I believe that it has been my willingness to take a chance on new opportunities and push the boundaries through new ideas that has positioned me and my team to take on such an exciting endeavour.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Doug Hyatt was my favourite professor. In addition to being our academic advisor, Doug teaches both Macro and Micro economics. He presented the material in a way that was relevant to what was happening in the world of business and trade and ensured that the subject resonated with the class. His class lectures focused on the “so-what” of the material and he went into the nuances of the material that reflected the day’s business news. On a personal note, Doug was the first professor who made me stop and really think about the impact that I wanted the EMBA to have on my career and how I could use the experience to go on to do something I was truly passionate about.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? One of the most impactful courses for me was Organizational Design (with John Oesch). It was through the course that I learned that company culture does not happen by accident; in the most successful organizations, the culture is constructed and nurtured to resonate through all aspects of the organization or team. There needs to be carefully crafted synergies between tasks, rewards, performance outcome and measurement, team construct, and work environments in order to create the culture that you want in your organization.

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? My husband had graduated from Rotman’s part-time MBA program a few years earlier so I had no doubts about the calibre of the school. I had seen first-hand how he had become even more methodical and succinct in his approach to tasks and how effective that made him. It was the executive program’s additional focus on leadership that drew me to the program. I was at a point in my career where I was comfortable with my technical abilities, but wanted to understand what my leadership strengths and weaknesses were.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? I enjoyed the time in the classroom, listening to class lectures and participating in the class discussions. I wanted to immerse myself in the learning environment and everything that the classroom had to offer. I found it to be very indulgent to be in an environment where I was able to learn from incredible professors and from the diverse past experiences of my classmates.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? My youngest was three months old when I started the executive MBA at Rotman. I distinctly remember one particular night, a few weeks before the start of the program, being suddenly overwhelmed by what was to come and how I was possibly going to get through the next 13 months – how was I going to go to class after sleepless nights with the baby; when would I finish the assignments; who was going to take care of the baby during weekend classes; what was I thinking trying to take this on at this time. Earlier that week, a doctor had told me that it was unfair to my son that I was pursuing my education at a time when I should be focused on my new baby. My husband had completed his MBA a few years earlier when our first son was born and I couldn’t help but wonder if his doctor had given him the same advice.

In that moment I made a conscious decision to stop worrying, stop overthinking and just go for it. This was an incredible opportunity and I was determined that I would get the most out of the experience while not taking away from my time with my son. In those early months, I would make sure that all school work was done when my son was down for naps and when both kids were down for the night at the end of the day. After the earliest morning feed, I would stay up to get in some readings or finish off assignments before the rest of the family would wake up for the day. I was already accustomed to the sleep deprivation that comes with having an infant, so I found myself surprisingly still able to follow along in class and retain material even after only having had four to five hours of sleep the night before.  The key was to remain flexible, keep things in perspective no matter how crazy things got, call in as many favours as we could to friends and family, and, most importantly, always remember why I chose to do the executive MBA in the first place. This strategy was stress-tested when I returned to work halfway through the program but the same game plan applied. While things felt like I was hanging on by my finger nails at times, I loved every single moment of this program and all of the resulting experiences since.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program?  Many people describe the program as trying to drink from a firehose and I would definitely agree. It’s easy to get lost in the velocity and miss or gloss over the most important learnings for your development. Be very deliberate in identifying what you want to get out of each class, especially in the courses focused on leadership development. Women considering this program may be worrying about how to juggle school on top of all of the juggling they already do. To them, I would say (emphatically), your career and growth is worth nurturing too. Once you’ve made the decision to do it, jump in wholeheartedly and don’t look back. Have confidence that the rest (your boss, kids activities, family obligations, work deadlines) will sort itself out.

What was your biggest regret in business school? My cohort was a really incredible, diverse and interesting group of people and I regret that I was not able to spend as much social time getting to know them outside of the classroom. With a young family at home, I often found myself feeling guilty about participating in some of the extracurricular social events as it meant more time away from home. Forming connections with your classmates is just as important in this experience as the academic learning you get in the classroom. Luckily, I’ve found more time to connect with classmates since completing the program.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? There were incredible people in the class, but one who made the most impact on me is Kathleen McGinn; Kathleen joined the EMBA program after starting (and selling) a successful business. In addition to being a mom of two young kids, she is also the Executive Director of the EMPWR Foundation (a charitable organization dedicated to advancing concussion recover research and championing education on the dangers of concussions in sports). I was fortunate to have Kathleen in my study team and was inspired by her ability to pull the team together, stay positive no matter what we were faced with, and really come through for the team. It was also her passion for getting involved in all of the peripheral opportunities that came her way that motivated me to also look beyond the immediate opportunities (in both school and work) and get curious about what other initiatives I could get involved with.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I felt I was plateauing in my role from a development perspective and I found myself no longer pushing myself outside of my comfort zone at work.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be… really comfortable in the domain that I was already well-versed in (and not challenged as a result).”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I strongly believe that the key to ensuring that Canada remains competitive and innovative lies in the collaboration between corporate entities, the start up community, academia and Government. I would ultimately like to work in a capacity where I can facilitate the collaboration between these entities and see first-hand the ideas and the creations that it brings. I’m also committed to encouraging more young women to enter STEM fields and would be honoured to work with organizations and educators to make that happen.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I hope that they will remember me as someone who was respectful of opinions, cared about their development but also made sure that things got done.

Favorite book: Any book written by Roald Dahl – he had something for every age…

Favorite movie or television show: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

  1. Taking a guilt-free trip around the world with my husband without the kids
  2. Waterfall jumping (right after I learn how to swim)

What made Rupinder such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?

“From the very beginning, it was plainly evident that Rupinder is exceptional. Rupinder eased the early trepidations of her classmates through her quiet, intelligent, and empathetic presence. Our students have expressed their respect for Rupinder, earned through being a constructive leader on projects, class discussions, team deliverables and individual work. Her culminating Capstone entrepreneurial project – “The Impact of Smart City Innovations on Livability” – demonstrated Rupinder’s commitment to improving communities. Impressively, and attributable to her leadership and mentoring skills and passion for realizing the potential of ideas, Rupinder was chosen as one of only three students to represent the EMBA class in our prestigious Creative Destruction Lab accelerator program. Rupinder readily embraced this opportunity, and enthusiastically committed another academic year to be part of this program.

In her own words, being “diligent, strategic and thoughtful” in pursuing the career and life she wants shows the balance she uses in achieving her goals. To her credit, Rupinder was promoted while on maternity leave just prior to joining EMBA and again at the end of our very demanding EMBA program. Now, as the Director of Advanced Analytics and Data Science at Bell Canada, Rupinder’s professional progress has placed her at the forefront of applied technological innovation.”

Rocca Morra Hodge
Director, Career Services, Executive MBA Programs

Douglas Hyatt
Academic Director, Professional MBA Programs, and
Professor of Business Economics

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