To aspire is to add momentum to your life, says millionaire

If you want to be successful, the first thing you should do is choose the right heroes, business leader and philanthropist Michael Lee-Chin told graduating students of the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies Saturday morning.

     Right: Michael Lee-Chin

Then you must aspire to do something grand, stick to your values, work hard, persevere and take risks, said the Jamaican-born founder and executive chair of Advantage Investment Counsel (AIC), one of Canada’s largest mutual fund companies, after receiving an honorary degree from York. Avoid becoming complacent and start thinking now about what you want your legacy to be, he advised his young audience.

Born in 1951, Lee-Chin grew up in Jamaica and studied civil engineering at McMaster University but veered into the mutual fund industry after graduating in 1974. By age 26, he was a financial adviser and went on to found AIC. He made his fortune backing sound companies with strong balance sheets whose market value was less than their underlying worth, said Atkinson Dean Rhonda Lenton in her citation.

“Michael Lee-Chin has devoted himself to enriching his community, not just himself,” said Lenton. “We may know him best for his $32-million contribution to Royal Ontario Museum for the construction of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, but he has also made multimillion-dollar donations to McMaster, U of T, Northern Caribbean University and the William J. Clinton Foundation.” He has also made significant contributions to at-risk communities such as Black Creek West. In 2002, he won the Harry Jerome Award for Business Leader of the Decade from the Black Business & Professional Association. In 2004, Time magazine named him one of Canada’s heroes.

From left: York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies Dean Rhonda Lenton, Michael Lee-Chin and Chancellor Roy McMurtry

One of nine children, Lee-Chin said his parents, through sacrifice and hard work, gave their children an opportunity in life, a voice in the system and power in the marketplace. “Everybody do not have those three things,” he said in a lilting Jamaican syntax. But you do, he suggested. “Make sure you don’t abuse those facilities.”

“What did I learn from my parents’ sacrifice to get me here?”

  • To aspire. “Aspiration,” said Lee-Chin, “transforms ordinary persons into extraordinary achievers. It provides immense momentum and physical energy for people to convert implausible impossibilities into convincing possibilities.”
  • “Have an enduring value system based on openness, honesty, integrity, meritocracy, fairness, transparency and excellence because it’s your value system that will raise your confidence and give you the courage to handle tough situations and sacrifices.”
  • “Respect, dignity, challenging work and a promising career path are more important motivators than just money. People want to be a part of a defining moment that transforms society and the world. Emotional energy is an invaluable asset for aspirants.”
  • Persevere. Lee-Chin quoted Calvin Coolidge: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
  • Perform. “Performance, graduates, will lead to recognition,” said Lee-Chin. “Recognition brings respect. Respect enhances power. Humility and grace in one moment of power enhances the dignity of the aspirant. This perhaps is the most essential instrument – to encourage youngsters to demonstrate commitment and dedication toward any course. Role models are powerful catalysts in raising confidence and enthusiasm and energy levels of an entire generation.”
  • Take risks. “Ships, graduates, are safest in harbours but they’re not meant to be there. They have to sail long and hard and face many stormy seas to reach a comfortable desirable destination. Hence progress requires us to take calculated risks and to make bold moves.”

One of Lee-Chin’s bold moves was buying the National Commercial Bank of Jamaica. Sitting in the minister of finance’s office in Kingston, Jamaica, he was on the verge of writing the cheque on March 19, 2002, when “I thought, oh my gosh, how is it possible for a son of an orphan today to be writing a cheque for the Bank of Jamaica? The answer came crashing back: It’s possible for many reasons that you had nothing to do with!”

Firstly, he didn’t choose his parents. “I had parents who were standard setting, who led by example, who nurtured us to be confident human beings. I was blessed.”

Secondly, he didn’t choose the country or the era in which he was born. “I was born in a country that gave me the opportunity to be confident…and nurtured me to believe I could be anybody. My future was not truncated…. I was blessed,” he said. “Had I been born 250 years ago, I would not have been able to own a suit, a pen, a shirt, a pair of pants. I would have been a chattel. I didn’t choose the era in which I was born. I was blessed to have been born when the skills I have were the skills that were needed in society.”

You’re here, he told graduands, because you’re blessed.     

Two years ago, Lee-Chin and his wife were strolling along the waterfront at dawn in Port Antonio, Jamaica, where Lee-Chin grew up, when they came across a young man staring at the sunrise. His name was John Shaw and he was a landscaper whose future was uncertain, who hadn’t had the same opportunities. Lee-Chin wondered how John Shaw and his children would see the future. Would they be optimistic or afraid about what was around the corner?

“Graduates, I would suggest you’ve been born in an era that represents the most opportunity of any era in the history of mankind. You’ve been blessed to be born in this era.

“So the question is, given that we’re here for many reasons that had nothing to do with us, what are we going to do with the podium and the opportunity that we have today as citizens of the world? How are we going to make sure the John Shaws of the world have the opportunities we have today? How are we going to make sure the John Shaws of the world have a voice in the system? How are we going to make sure the John Shaws of the world have power in the marketplace, as we all do?”

To hear an archived video of this speech, click here.