Honorary degree recipient Annette Verschuren tells grads to be responsible, passionate leaders

Corporate leader, author and advocate of mental health and women’s rights, Annette Verschuren, was the first recipient of an honorary degree during York University’s 2018 Spring Convocation.

From left: York University Chancellor Greg Sorbara, honorary degree recipient Annette Verschuren, York President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

The honorary doctor of laws was presented to Verschuren on June 15 during the second ceremony of convocation, before graduands of the Faculty of Environmental Studies, and the Faculty of Health’s nursing program.

Verschuren, described by York University Chancellor Greg Sorbara as “a role model for any citizen of Canada or any country,” shared a message of hope and opportunity for the future, and encouraged graduands to embrace a growth model that values not just profit, but people and the environment.

With a 41-year career as a leader in business and sustainability, and earning a distinguished record of public service, mentorship and philanthropy, Verschuren offer a glimpse into her past as one of five children who grew up working on a farm in Cape Breton, N.S.

When she was 11, her father had a heart attack and was forced to find a way to reduce labour on the farm. He developed a liquid manure system, before it was a mainstream practice, and the farm reduced its costs by 20 per cent.

Annette Verschuren addresses convocation

“He did it because he had to, and I learned about innovaiton and sustainability at a very young age,” said Verschuren, who is the founder of the renewable energy storage technology company NRStor Inc.

Before that journey, she spent 15 years as president of The Home Depot Canada and Asia, and there she spearheaded significant changes to environmental business practices. In response to concern from the Aboriginal community, she devised a protocol wherein Home Depot would only buy from forests that were certified as managing their forest responsibly.

“The impact was enormous and it totally changed the industry. It was done in two years and the world changed,” she said. “It demonstrates that we can change our society and the way we live.”

After 41 years of business experience, she said she has seen the way companies run, and they’ve been very “siloed” for many years. She noted, however, the organization of the future is circular, and it keeps changing.

“That’s what is exciting for the graduates,” she said “The problems are big – health problems are enormous, there is pollution of the oceans, and we need to do a lot to make that change.

“You will be the innovators,” she told graduands. “You will be the ones to really accelerate the change.”

Verschuren is also the co-founder of Michaels of Canada, is a past Chair of Ontario’s Clean Energy Task Force, is an adviser to the Eco-Fiscal Commission and founder of Smart Prosperity.

Currently she is Chancellor of Cape Breton University, and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2011 for her corporate social responsibility. In 2012, she was appointed co-chair of the 2012 Governor General’s Leadership Conference.

Along with her professional pursuits, Verschuren has contributed her expertise to many volunteer and non-profit organizations including Habitat for Humanity, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the Rideau Hall Foundation, and more.

Women’s rights are paramount to her development and she regularly mentors young women.

She offered some final advice for success. It hinges on being passionate, aligning your values with your organizations and leaders, taking risks and being organized, finding a balance and embracing diversity.

“The most successful part of my careers, the most profitable parts of my business, is when there is diversity in the leadership,” she said. “Diversity is the key, I believe, to the future.”