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Some of the donated money will be kicked into the proposed Sobey Entrepreneurship and Innovation Hub, a 43,000-square-foot school addition estimated to cost between $35-million and $39-million.Handout

Atlantic Canada’s largest business school, armed with a record $18-million donation announced Thursday afternoon, aims to raise its national profile to recruit top students and researchers.

The gift to the Sobey School of Business at Halifax-based Saint Mary’s University marks the largest in its history and comes from long-standing philanthropic allies: members of the Sobey family, Sobeys Inc., and the Sobey Foundation.

David Sobey, whose father Frank H. Sobey initiated what has become three generations of family giving to Saint Mary’s, says the donation marks “a good time for this university to step up with a stronger offering,” focused on attracting talented students and researchers from the rest of Canada, and beyond, to the region.

The gift, believed to be among the largest single donations to an East Coast university, has three major components: $5-million for 150 student scholarships over the next decade; $7-million for faculty growth, including two endowed chairs, five professorships and two postdoctoral fellows; and a $6-million contribution toward a proposed major school expansion and programming to boost current activities in entrepreneurship and research innovation.

Business school dean Harjeet Bhabra describes the gift as “a defining moment in the history” of his school. “It puts us on a new growth trajectory and positions us to attract the best and brightest students and outstanding faculty to our school,” he says.

While recognized in domestic and international rankings, especially for sustainability and entrepreneurship education, his school sometimes flies below the radar in a crowded, globally competitive business education market, the dean acknowledges.

“We have one of the best business programs in the country, but being located on one end of the country has been a challenge to attract students to come from the rest of the country,” says Dr. Bhabra.

The new scholarships likely will not be in place until 2020, he says, though faculty-related funds to attract and retain top professors could flow starting this year, including for the postdoctoral fellows.

Candidates for the endowed chairs – in business ethics, governance and corporate social responsibility and another in entrepreneurship, family business and small business management – are not expected to be named until next year, at the earliest. The school currently has no privately endowed chairs, but holds two Canada Research Chairs and a bank-sponsored professorship in technology entrepreneurship.

Attracting talent to the region is essential to its future, says Mr. Sobey.

“When you get young people coming to an area like Nova Scotia and Halifax – it is a beautiful area and a beautiful province – if we can get them down here and attract them to this area and they get a good education, some of them will stay here and become the future leaders of this area,” he says. “We need entrepreneurs in Atlantic Canada who want to take a chance and start up a company.”

Saint Mary’s president Robert Summerby-Murray says his institution’s “strong set of connections” with the Sobey family, which date to 1979 when Frank H. Sobey received an honorary doctorate, led to recent conversations about next steps for the business school.

“Like many of these things, it is built on relationships,” said the president.

David Sobey announces that the Sobey family empire is donating $18-million to Saint Mary's University on Thursday.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The then-faculty of commerce was named for Frank H. Sobey in 1992 and renamed the Sobey School of Business in 1997.

David Sobey, who turns 88 Friday, led a $24-million capital campaign for the university between 1991 and 1998. In 2008, he served as Saint Mary’s first non-clergy chancellor until 2010. His son, Paul, completed a three-year term as chancellor in 2018.

Dr. Summerby-Murray describes the donation as “a transformation, a game-changer” in raising the school’s national profile.

“The gift itself allows us to see an investment in our Sobey school of a scale that we see in other nationally leading schools of business,” he says.

The proposed Sobey Entrepreneurship and Innovation Hub, a 43,000-square-foot school addition estimated to cost between $35-million and $39-million, already has received $11-million from the Nova Scotia government.

With Thursday’s Sobey pledge, half of the funds for the capital cost of the building are in hand. Dr. Summerby-Murray says his university hopes to secure commitments from the federal government and other private donors.

He says the innovation hub, once completed, is intended to attract students and professors from all disciplines across the campus.

“This is very much a collaboration,” he says, reinforcing current university efforts to link students from arts, sciences and humanities and those in business. University curriculum, he notes, “is increasingly becoming cross-fertilized and we want our next steps in the Sobey school to be reflective of that.”

Like the endowed chairs, he adds, the new innovation hub is seen as tool to deepen ties with local startups and businesses across the region.

That is also the hope of Bernard Doucet, secretary of the Sobey Foundation, which has pledged $3-million as part of the overall gift.

“We [Atlantic Canada] may be categorized as a have-not region, but we are one with a great deal to offer,” he says. Investments in scholarships and infrastructure at the school can enhance its regional and national reputation, he adds.

“We are very proud of the Sobey School of Business as it is, but this gift is designed to enable what is great here to be that much greater, and more recognized,” he says.

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