Don’t be afraid to stay away from comfort zones, Mark Lievonen advises grads during spring convocation

Mark Lievonen
Mark Lievonen
Mark Lievonen

Avoiding comfort zones, finding the courage to take risks and passion were central to what Mark Lievonen (BBA ’79, MBA ’87), president of Sanofi Pasteur Limited, the Canadian vaccine division of Sanofi, had on his mind during spring convocation ceremonies for graduands of the Faculty of Science and the Lassonde School of Engineering. Lievonen presented the commencement address at convocation on June 18 after being conferred with an honorary doctor of laws degree by York University.

A business and community leader, Lievonen was recognized by York University for his pivotal role in building Sanofi Pasteur into a billion-dollar enterprise in Canada that manufactures more than 50 million doses of vaccines for both domestic and international markets, and for his many years of service as a member of the York University Board of Governors and a director on the York University Development Corporation. From 2012 to 2013, he also played a key role in helping to guide the development of the University’s strategic research plan, Building on Strength 2013-2018.

“When I graduated from York, all those years ago, I did not imagine I would be back, much less wearing this robe, standing before a crowd of young scientists, engineers and mathematicians,” he said. “But life is funny sometimes. It doesn’t always work out the way you’d expect. As you may have gleaned from my introduction, I’m not a scientist. But I am, you could say, in the business of science.”

He offered grads some important lessons from his life. The first, he said, focused on the importance of getting out of one’s comfort zone. “I’m talking about taking risks. Saying ‘yes’ to prospects that scare you. Diving in deep. In other words, learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” he said. “This applies to reaching new professional heights; but you’ll find it useful for most aspects of life as well.”

Some risks, he said, won’t pan out, but others will. The failures grads would encounter along the way, he said, would be important as they lay the foundation for future opportunities. “It is important to never lose that drive to improve yourself,” said Lievonen. “You’ll have to prove yourself to those who don’t believe in you. As well as prove that you were worth it, to those who do.  But more importantly go out there and prove it to yourself that you can achieve what you set your minds to.”

The second lesson, he said. focuses on why it is okay to change one’s mind. “For most grads, after years of pursuing studies in their chosen field, the future might seem set in stone. But the reality is: it is more like clay, able to hold form but malleable enough to take another shape,” he said. “Looking back on my undergrad years, I thought I had it all figured out. I would be a Chartered Accountant. Check. VP of Finance. Check. Never did I imagine what was to come: a move to Sales and Marketing! Heading up a cancer vaccine research and development strategy! And today, having enjoyed the great fortune of leading the organization for 15 years.”

Above: University Secretary and General Counsel Maureen  Armstrong gets some assistance from York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri during the robing of honorary degree recipient Mark Lievonen. York Chancellor Gregory Sorbara (far right) looks on.
Above: University Secretary and General Counsel Maureen Armstrong gets some assistance from York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri during the robing of honorary degree recipient Mark Lievonen. York Chancellor Gregory Sorbara looks on.

The value of a university education, he told grads, aside from preparing them for their chosen paths, is that it offers the resources needed to adapt should they find themselves having to, or simply wishing to, take a different route. “You’ll learn how to take failure in stride. How to communicate effectively. How to think rationally and deal with conflict. How to play nice with others while developing your own sense of self,” he said. “These are all assets you’ve begun to develop here at York, and will continue to build on, as you grow.”

In conclusion, he asked graduands to explore his final lesson – to find a vocation that doubles as a passion. “I hope that each of you can find that fire, and have the courage to go where it takes you,” he said. “And if that passion just happens to make the world a better place? We are all the better for it. After all, you each have the capacity to spark positive change. It may sound trite, but it’s a truth learned from experience.

“I’ve known some very dedicated scientists and engineers at Sanofi Pasteur. Great thinkers and amazing problem-solvers who have helped create healthier communities around the world. People who have made it possible to control polio and bring it to the verge of global eradication; to build innovative laboratories from the ground up; and soon – introducing the world’s first dengue fever vaccine,” he said. “They all started where you find yourselves today. At the end of one chapter, looking, perhaps uncertainly, towards the next one.

“You too, will find your purpose – just have an open mind. Take risks. And throughout it all, never stray from what makes you happy.”

York’s 2015 spring convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. Lievonen’s convocation address will be archived at the conclusion of spring convocation ceremonies. To view his address, visit the Convocation webcast archive.