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The 'millionaire jerk' professor Add to ...

Meet Toronto's answer to Donald Trump, only with way better hair. And instead of becoming a flashy reality-TV star, millionaire businessman Reza Satchu, 35, has reinvented himself as an educational entrepreneur.

After a dizzying success in the New York tech boom, Mr. Satchu could have kicked back to a life of golf and corporate directorships. Instead, he created a wildly popular undergraduate economics course at the University of Toronto, teaching the art of entrepreneurship in the real world. He takes no salary, and launched an annual scholarship that awards his top student out of his own pocket.

He's generous, yes, but he's no modest mouse. Mr. Satchu's approach is packed with high drama; he cold-calls on students and berates the unprepared by preaching one of his most staunchly held tenets: Don't get comfortable. Oh, and don't show up late.

One of the top students in his class, Miraz Manji, 22, wasn't planning on taking the class last September -- until he heard about the "millionaire jerk" professor who threw a "horrid tantrum" on the first day of the semester.

"He told them his time was worth more than theirs, and they better participate and not waste his time," Mr. Manji had heard from someone already taking Economics of Entrepreneurship, and he promptly dropped another class to sign up.

"I e-mailed Professor Satchu to let him know that I had joined the course after missing the first week. He replied only with a firm, 'Do not miss any more classes.' "

For a session this past fall -- his second -- Mr. Satchu had 200 students vying for 35 seats. In the school's Anti-Calendar, which ranks classes and profs, he came out as one of the best liked, garnering a 100-per-cent "retake" from students, meaning every one of them would sign up for the class again.

"I don't focus on the weakest performers," Mr. Satchu says. "I focus on the best performers and make them even better. When you get into the real world, you don't have people babying you along. If you're not good and prepared, you're gonna get hurt. I'm harsh on people and the better you are, the more harsh I am."

The unlikely professor emigrated to Canada from Kenya in 1976 with his parents and brother, Asif, and grew up in a one-bedroom Scarborough apartment. Armed with a fierce work ethic for which he credits his hard-working parents -- his mother a secretary, his father a real-estate agent -- he headed to New York after graduating with a BA in economics from McGill University and "applied at a hundred places."

He finally persuaded Merrill Lynch to hire him as a financial analyst, and says his first day at work provided a lesson he won't forget and one he aims to impart to his students: While the education in the United States and Canada is on a par, the goals and expectations are not.

"They'd been taught to be the world's best from the age of 4, true American-style," he says from his sleek, spacious Rosedale home. "I'm 22 and sitting next to this guy who's gone to Harvard. He has been thinking for the past few years that he's going to be a Nobel laureate in economics or run a firm, or write a book that's going to be a bestseller.

"If I compare that to friends of mine who stayed here, their goal is to be vice-president of Royal Bank or go through law school and maybe make partner at one of the law firms in Canada. It's a very narrow straightforward path. There's nothing particularly challenging about it."

He took up the challenge, and hit Harvard Business School for an MBA, then entered the world of private equity. In 1999, he and his brother co-founded Suppliermarket.com Inc., a business-to-business website for industrial manufacturers that raised $60-million from investors, including KKR and Onex. They sold the 225-employee company to a competitor for more than $1-billion (U.S.) in 2000. In 2003, he moved with his lawyer wife, Marion Annau, and their three small children back to Toronto, where he's thrilled they "won't be run over by yellow taxi cabs every time they leave the house."

While enjoying a slightly more relaxed pace, Mr. Satchu knew he wanted to explore philanthropy in an unconventional manner. Walking along St. George Street one day, he happened past the department of economics and knocked on the door to meet the dean at the time, Michael Berkowitz.

"To his credit, he didn't kick me out," says Mr. Satchu, who pitched his idea to teach an entrepreneurial course. "It had amazed me that no one had done this before."

Mr. Satchu relies in class on a blend of Harvard Business School case studies, guest lecturers from the world of business, and his own pearls of wisdom.

"But it's not storytelling," says interim chair of economics Don Dewees. "It's about finance -- there's lots of theory and empirical work."

Mr. Satchu's aim is to take the cream of the crop and push them further than anyone had pushed him in undergrad. "I'm trying to attract the smartest people to my class," he says. "Then, what I do is tell them, yes, in your little cocoon at U of T, you've done well. But it's somewhat irrelevant. Your goal should not be, 'Am I doing well at U of T?' It should be, 'How do I go about competing against the world's best?' "

To that end, he has established the Reza Satchu Award for Excellence in Economics this year. In January, he invited the top 10 students to his house for a fancy catered lunch, and put the four most promising on the spot to compete for the award. He asked them to present, off the tops of their heads, the business plans they had submitted in class a month prior, then field criticism from Mr. Satchu and the remaining students, Apprentice-style.

The winner was commerce student Pamela Ramchandani, 21, who took the award pitching a business that outsources bookkeeping functions to India. Although the financial portion of the prize ($2,000 to $5,000 annually, paid out from a substantial endowment) doesn't kick in until the next round of Satchu's Apprentice, Ms. Ramchandani is elated.

"I have had a number of small scholarships, but I consider this my biggest achievement at U of T."

More than the money, she appreciates the fact that Mr. Satchu told the class from the outset that he would have "a vested interest in the success of the person who won the award," she says. "He wants to see us succeed. That's so valuable."

While Mr. Satchu is busy with a new company, NorthCoast Capital, his class will be offered for the third time in the fall. Until then, he's collecting e-mail updates and gushing thank-you notes from his students.

One of the top four, Justin Wong, credits Mr. Satchu with his decision to head to Kenya after graduating to volunteer, instead of his original plan to backpack across Europe. And while Ms. Ramchandani is going to Ernst & Young as an accountant in the fall, she'll keep that business plan in her back pocket. Mr. Manji, the student who joined the class late, is starting his own business, U Shop Easy, an on-line service that helps people shop for digital products.

Mr. Satchu applauds their choices, but he's not trying to breed little millionaires. "It's absolutely not about making money. It's about setting really high expectations in whatever field you choose."

 

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