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Ryerson president Sheldon Levy says universities have a responsibility to nurture innovation. ‘If you miss the digital revolution, if you miss the enterprise from it, the economy will suffer.’ (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Ryerson president Sheldon Levy says universities have a responsibility to nurture innovation. ‘If you miss the digital revolution, if you miss the enterprise from it, the economy will suffer.’ (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

MEET OUR JUDGES

Sheldon Levy: Ryerson president believes innovation can be learned Add to ...

The Globe and Mail’s Innovators at Work is a contest to recognize talented Canadians who not only have great ideas, but turn them into reality through their drive and their actions. Readers can nominate candidates here.

It’s a shame that part of the Toronto skyline blocks Sheldon Levy’s view of one of his greatest achievements: the transformation of Maple Leaf Gardens from half-empty hockey shrine to thriving university athletics centre.

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But while downtown towers obscure the northeast view of the Gardens, the Ryerson University president’s office has no window at all to the southwest, where, hidden among the glass and neon of Yonge-Dundas Square rests another major achievement of his tenure: the school’s Digital Media Zone. Bustling with hundreds of entrepreneurs, nearly two-thirds of them Ryerson grads and students, the DMZ is a school-sponsored tech incubator that’s birthed more than 120 companies.

“I think universities take on a new responsibility in this knowledge-based era,” Mr. Levy says in his Jorgenson Hall corner office filled with nine years of framed newspaper clippings of Ryerson success stories. “If you miss the digital revolution, if you miss the enterprise from it, the economy will suffer.”

Mr. Levy will step down as Ryerson’s president next year, having stretched the limit of what a university president can do. To students, he’s a supporter of grassroots innovation and the broadening of skill sets; across Toronto, he’s known as the academic who became a city builder.

The whole, though, is greater than the sum of its parts: In nine years as president, Mr. Levy has emerged as an innovator himself, reimagining the role of the university in the 21st century. Under his watch, the once-chided “Rye High” has become one of the most in-demand schools in Ontario, growing in stature as a university but also as a key contributor to Toronto’s – and Canada’s – business community.

In the coming months, Mr. Levy will lend his eye for entrepreneurial talent as one of five judges for The Globe and Mail’s Innovators at Work contest, in which readers nominate the creative business minds in their lives to have their stories told in the newspaper.

“Sheldon was the first person to trust me with my own education,” says Brennan McEachran, a 23-year-old Ryerson business grad and founder of HitSend Inc., whose customer-feedback app SoapBox has been used by Indigo Books & Music Inc. and Justin Trudeau’s Liberal leadership campaign. “I had a concept and he gave me everything I needed to learn, connect and build on my own.”

A few years ago, then-student Mr. McEachran dashed off a 1 a.m. e-mail to Mr. Levy outlining an idea he had for a student feedback program – “and to my surprise, he got back to me.” The president connected him with the DMZ, where Mr. McEachran built the company and connected with customers such as Indigo and Mr. Trudeau. Today, HitSend has 13 employees, its own office, and clients such as Royal Bank of Canada and Cisco Systems.

“Before Sheldon I never thought it possible to get a career, a degree, and a handful of employees at the same time,” Mr. McEachran says. “Before Sheldon, no one thought that.”

Mr. Levy, a rare PhD-less academic administrator, earned two degrees at York University in the 1970s before becoming a lecturer in computer sciences and math there. He eventually became the school’s vice-president of institutional affairs – “It was clear that I was better at that than I was at the academic part” – and went on to be an administrator at the University of Toronto, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Sheridan College before becoming Ryerson’s president in 2005.

Mr. Levy admits he used to think that great innovators and entrepreneurs were born “with a certain DNA,” but that changed as he began working more closely with student entrepreneurs. People from all walks of life could become innovators, he realized, and they exhibited a common trait: compassion. “To listen and be able to see problems in the minds of other people, and the ability to look at the status quo and be able to say, ‘I can improve upon it in a way that will make a difference to people,’” he says. “That’s a different way of looking at life.”

With this realization, Mr. Levy became a champion of student entrepreneurship. Numerous students were approaching him with business ideas, and he sought to find a way to support them. Teaming with people such as Hossein Rahnama, who was operating a student-run lab that he hoped to turn into a company, and Valerie Fox, then a user experience design lead with IBM, Mr. Levy helped create the DMZ, which opened in 2010.

“By the time the idea of the zone started to formulate, it came to him that Ryerson absolutely must support young people in their entrepreneurial streams, because they truly are going to be forming the world,” says Ms. Fox, now the DMZ’s executive director. “He’s so excited about what students are capable of doing and knows we must enable them.”

Located on the northeast corner of Yonge-Dundas Square, the DMZ is integrated into one of the busiest parts of Toronto’s downtown. Under Mr. Levy’s watch, Ryerson has become deeply tangled with the downtown business community, not just physically but in terms of interaction, blending the classroom experience with real-life opportunities.

To Mr. Levy, it’s a win-win approach for a university: Student businesses start off surrounded by real-life potential customers, while the city around them gets access to this young talent.

He likens the DMZ approach to co-op programs for the age of the knowledge industry.

“Co-op used to mean, and still means, that young people go into companies and get experiential learning,” Mr. Levy says. For students in the DMZ, “I’m the company, I will get experiential learning, and co-op students will come to me.”

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