Cheryl McEwen encourages Schulich grads to embrace the unknown

Cheryl McEwen

Entrepreneur, community leader and philanthropist Cheryl McEwen shared with graduands of York University’s Schulich School of Business her model for success in life during her speech at the 12th ceremony of convocation on June 21.

McEwen received an honorary doctor of laws, and was recognized for her impact on Canadian health care and education through philanthropy, as well as her success in the fashion and business industry. She and her husband, Rob McEwen (MBA ’78, Hon. LLD ’05), made an $8-million donation to York University in 2017, which was recognized with the naming of the Rob and Cheryl McEwen Graduate Study & Research Building at the Schulich School of Business.

From left: Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Cheryl McEwen and President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

McEwen began her speech on a positive note, sharing with graduands that it was a course she took at York University that made her think differently about life. In her first year, she enrolled in a course called Zen and Existentialism in which she learned how maintaining a positive frame of mind could be a powerful tool.

“In my short time here,” she said, “this idea was planted.”

She continued by telling graduating students that there were three life-altering opportunities that shaped her journey – her career, her family life and her philanthropy.

“I call them opportunities because I could have avoided them or simply missed giving them my attention. Take note,” she said, “you should always take a serious look at opportunities and maintain an open mind.”

She took her story back to her undergraduate days at York University, when she had to leave her studies suddenly to jump into the family business of fashion retail to take over from her mother, who was recovering from a health setback. This pushed her to learn on the job, experience the ups and downs of running a small business, learn how to respond to abrupt changes and problem solve on the spot, all while having a smile on her face.

“All of that was required, and I loved it,” said McEwen.

Soon thereafter, her father suddenly died, and once again she was put in a challenging situation where she learned from her mother to “get right back at it and move forward with courage.”

The family business grew, and so did the family interest, with her sister joining the business during an exciting time of success and female empowerment in 1980 – until 1987, when Black Monday hit and the economy tightened.

She sought out mentors, like Harry Rosen, to help her navigate the new economy.

“We had to consolidate, we had to understand and re-evaluate what our customers wanted, and we knew we had to change our image to meet an evolving market,” she said.

In the early ’90s, the family opened a new store called Andrews, a department store for women. At this point, her mom retired, passing the baton to McEwen and her sister, who were then joined in business by their brother.

Cheryl McEwen

“In building any business, you need to be an example of the brand, for your customers and for your team,” McEwen shared with graduands. “This is a universal truth: lead by example.

“My beginnings in business started with a crisis, but I took it in stride and made the most of it. It turned out to be an incredible experience that I shared with my family. You may also have events in life that appear suddenly and I encourage you to embrace them. As you begin your careers, remember that learning is not over with a university degree. It’s a life skill.”

She also spoke to graduands about family life, partnership and parenthood, offering that when you give support, kindness, respect and love, life improves exponentially. These pillars also supported her journey into philanthropy, and passion projects she continues to be involved in today.

McEwen is a visioneer with the XPRIZE Foundation, a member of the advisory board of the McEwen School of Architecture and the McEwen Stem Cell Institute, the vice-chair of the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation Board, and a founding member of the Luminato Arts Festival.

Being involved with such great projects, she said, introduced her to extraordinary people.

She and her husband also co-founded the McEwen Stem Cell Institute, taking a big risk in an area of research that was very new at the time.

“What I have learned as philanthropist is that whatever you give comes back to you in ways you cannot imagine,” she said. “It’s about the people you meet; it’s about their passion and their ability to make this world a better place that gives you an enormous feeling of gratitude. If you can find a way in your future to play a part in your community, I think you will feel the same way.”

The networks built at university and the knowledge acquired through post-secondary learning offer a foundation for the future. But believing in yourself is the most important component of success, she said.