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EMBA brings out the artist in Halifax and area youth

SMU grad Heather MacDonald joined the MacPhee Centre for Creative Learning in Dartmouth, N.S., last October as its executive director.

Michelle Doucette

This story is the eighth in a series that features students and graduates who are using their MBAs and EMBAs in unique fields other than the traditional ones of finance or consulting.

While still in high school, Heather MacDonald began volunteering for non-profits, an extracurricular activity that put her on the path to a career focused on social change.

And she's using a business degree to help her to do it.

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The 29-year-old joined the MacPhee Centre for Creative Learning, based in Dartmouth, N.S., last October as its executive director after earning an executive MBA degree from Saint Mary's University in neighbouring Halifax.

She went into the program knowing she'd use her business training to help her fulfill a tripartite goal of "community development, helping others and creating a better society."

Spreadsheets and data management fit in how, exactly?

"It's more a question of perception," responds Ms. MacDonald. "An MBA teaches you how to see things from different angles, and to understand how people in the world can have different viewpoints. I am very appreciative of gaining that insight as it helps me every day to make better decisions for the community I want to serve."

That community is youth-oriented and concentrated in the MacPhee Centre, where participants between the ages of 12 and 19 get to interact directly with the arts. Learning how to play music, paint a picture, put on a play or a choreograph a dance provide participants with more than just skills.

The arts instill a sense of purpose, Ms. MacDonald says. "Half the goal is providing kids with a space where they feel safe and are listened to, which is something they don't get all the time."

Keeping children and youth engaged through creative learning is one way of giving them hope for the future.

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"Our education system can be a box and not everyone fits in the box," Ms. MacDonald comments. "From that point of view, Nova Scotia has a lot of work to do and I'm excited to be part of that."

Ms. MacDonald is the last of three children born to parents from Ontario who moved to Nova Scotia to open a family-run auto parts recycling company near Truro.

At university, she studied voice before switching halfway through her undergraduate years at Acadia in Wolfville, N.S., to take a joint degree in recreation management and business administration.

Her decision to choose strategies over scales came as a result of experience gleaned in her own youth, organizing mentoring programs and conferences for people her own age.

"I had signed up for the Nova Scotia Secondary School Student Association, a student-wide leadership organization, when I was in Grade 10, and got hooked," Ms. MacDonald says. "By the time I entered first year of university, I was president."

From there, she looked to see how she could combine a love of arts with a taste for business acquired while volunteering.

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Besides the NSSSA, Ms. MacDonald assisted at summer camps and Scouts Canada camping excursions. "My engagement with not-for-profits started when I was 16."

Graduating from her undergraduate studies in 2009, Ms. MacDonald worked first for the YMCA, fundraising for the charitable organization's Strong Kids Campaign.

She then moved on to Junior Achievement of Nova Scotia, an experiential learning program offered through the school system. After three years there, she dipped her toe in the waters of the corporate world, working for the Halifax-based humans resources and recruitment firm, Gerald Walsh Associates.

That experience compelled her to pursue an executive MBA, starting the two-year program in the summer of 2013 and completing it last May.

"I really like a good challenge and I thought being in a group with more seasoned professionals from different industries would allow me to learn a lot more than a regular MBA program."

In a class of 20, Ms. MacDonald was by far the youngest student. "I was 26 at the time and the oldest person was 52. The average age for my year was 42. But it was an incredible experience," she says. "I learned how to ask better questions and see the bigger picture."

The MBA also helped her sharpen a focus on the non-profit sector as a combination business venture and social enterprise requiring strong partnerships in order to grow.

"The non-profit sector is a very entrepreneurial space," she says, "because you are essentially using business skills and concepts focused on the public good."

Since joining the MacPhee Centre seven months ago, Ms. MacDonald has been applying her newly acquired skill set to build the organization, founded in 2009, as a source of strength and inspiration for Halifax-area teens.

At present, there are 78 participants, and the average age is 14.

Instructors are contracted to teach them everything from ukulele to book making.

On occasion, Ms. MacDonald has jumped in to lead a classroom of youth from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. She usually wings it, sharing anecdotes about her own experiences as a youth leader in hopes of striking a chord.

"I like to keep them on their toes in a fun way, using humour to get them to make decisions about everything from what pronouns to use in identifying themselves to when to clean up and come prepared to learn how to help others. We constantly go back to that," Ms. MacDonald says.

"We spend a lot of time defining a community of individuals who are giving as well as receiving. I see my role as trying to motivate them."

Editor's note: An  earlier version of this article incorrectly said Nova Scotia has a 50-per-cent high-school dropout rate. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, the dropout rate is 9.3 per cent.

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About the Author

Deirdre Kelly is a features writer for The Globe and Mail. She is the author of the best-selling Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (Greystone Books). More

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