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Michael Furdyk is the Co-founder and Director of Technology for TakingITGlobal.org. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Michael Furdyk is the Co-founder and Director of Technology for TakingITGlobal.org. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Profiles

They followed their passions into different careers Add to ...

Meet Brian Levy: Now a medical student, he looks back at his 30-year rise to the top of the Source by Circuit City and his decision to move on



MICHAEL FURDYK



Michael Furdyk could have lounged around after striking it rich as a teenager in the dot-com era.

But he's not that kind of guy.

A decade after selling his Internet startup for "a few million" dollars, 27-year-old Mr. Furdyk is using his technology expertise to engage millions of youth and educators around the world in social issues ranging from the environment to globalization.

Toronto-based Mr. Furdyk's introduction to technology came at age 2, when his parents bought a Commodore 64 computer. He was soon hooked. By Grade 8, in the mid-1990s, he was doing a school project on the World Wide Web. He teamed with five friends from around the world to create his own website, and won advertising from companies including a Liechtenstein casino.

In 1997, he met digital guru Don Tapscott, and they soon became mentors to one another. Still in high school, he co-founded MyDesktop.com, which grew to more than a million monthly readers, then among the world's most popular online technology portals. It sold to Internet.com in 1999 for a seven-figure sum. An Oprah appearance followed. And Teen People named him one of "20 teens that will change the world."

"After having some time to reflect on that, I thought, do I really need to invest more time in the for-profit world? Or is it more valuable to spend time developing an organization to support other young people as a charity?"

Because of the attention, he got thousands of e-mails from young people, asking for guidance on how to develop their own ideas. So in 1999, he co-founded TakingITGlobal.org, a virtual global community for young people, and one of the first online social networks in the world.

At the time, the idea was revolutionary. "We thought the Internet would be an ideal place to create a non-commercial community to support young peoples' ideas, to help them be more culturally aware, and understand the challenges facing our world."

TakingITGlobal's 4.5 million global users (up a million from last year) discuss and take action on everything from climate change to gay rights, food security, living with HIV/AIDS and child labour. Members circulate petitions, start projects, take e-courses and share their stories in 12 languages, including Chinese and Arabic. Headquartered in Toronto, the site now has 18 staff, a dozen interns and over 400 "virtual volunteers."

Licensing technology to other non-profits and training teachers in countries such as Australia and Singapore help fund the charity. "Even though we're a charity, I'm still using my entrepreneurial background to create a sustainable revenue stream for our programs."

Tavia Grant



FIROZ RASUL



Firoz Rasul was flying with the Aga Khan on his private plane to Vancouver in 2005, when the spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims made a pitch to him about a new job in Pakistan.

Mr. Rasul, who had retired two years earlier as chief executive officer of fuel-cell developer Ballard Power Systems Inc. and was heading the Canadian association for the Muslim sect, was stunned by his offer to become president of Aga Khan University.

"I was shocked, flattered … and terrified," recalls the 57-year-old, who agreed to take on the job. "It's a massive role. You are talking about a university in the developing world - in countries that are highly volatile and fragile. We are in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya and Syria [among others]"

But these countries need universities to develop leaders capable of improving education and health care, battling corruption and increasing social cohesion, he said.

While he was thrilled to accept the challenge of running a multicampus university and its myriad programs, he was asked to do so as a volunteer. "My wife and I have done reasonably well in life, and we feel it's time to give back," Mr. Rasul said during a visit to Toronto.

Born in Kenya, Mr. Rasul was educated at the primary and secondary Aga Khan schools in Nairobi. That provided the foundation for his engineering degree, which he obtained in Britain, and his MBA from McGill in Montreal.

Not only did he get what he describes as a high-quality education at the Aga Khan schools that would ordinarily be the privilege of the rich, he also gained a set of values that would guide him in life. "It spoke not just about ethical behaviour, but also about compassion, generosity to those who are less privileged and giving back to the community."

As president of an international university, Mr. Rasul spends a lot of time on the road. But his base is in the original campus in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. He is expanding the school's focus beyond medicine and teacher development to arts, science and graduate programs.

Mr. Rasul acknowledged that leaving a comfortable life in Vancouver for the dust and heat of Karachi has been a bit of a shock. It is not uncommon to be without power several times a day. "You could be driving home and the street lights go off. You could be sitting in a restaurant … or be at the airport and the power goes off. You could have a 44-degree day outside, and no air conditioning at the airport."

But he sees such things as minor discomforts.

"You realize that what you are doing is actually making a difference to change lives," Mr. Rasul said. "That is what is so exciting about it."

Shirley Won



BILL YOUNG



Bill Young's career followed a rather conventional route.

Childhood in Ancaster, Ont., just outside Hamilton. BA from the University of Toronto. MBA from Harvard Business School. Chartered accountant at Ernst & Young. Chief executive officer of Hamilton Computers, where sales swelled to $250-million under his tenure from $15-million before it was sold to GE Capital. Then, CEO and chairman of Optel Communications, in the ballooning telecom market of the dot-com era.

By the time he hit his 40s, he was rich, successful and … dissatisfied.

"The wheel of fortune had spun awfully well for me," says Mr. Young, now 55. "There was a sense of having done well financially, beyond any needs myself or my family was going to require - and that the business world had gone mad with where its values were placed. I thought, 'I'm not sure I belong any more. How can I take my business experience and do something different?'"

So he jumped ship. After half a year studying the idea of social entrepreneurship - businesses that aim to do social good - he founded an investment firm dedicated to bolstering the fledgling sector.

Social Capital Partners, formed in 2001, is a national, not-for-profit organization that gives loans to companies that hire disadvantaged people. It has arranged $2-million in loans so far to projects like TurnAround Couriers, a Toronto bike courier business that recruits at-risk youth from shelters, and Fripe-Prix, a Montreal chain of second-hand stores that employs people who face difficulty entering the job market.

His firm is now giving loans to traditional private sector companies, such as 22 franchises in the Ontario tire and auto-care chain Active Green + Ross, on the condition they hire job-ready disadvantaged people. AG+R has since expanded its "social hiring" to locations that aren't receiving loans.

It's been a frustrating and rewarding road. "Nothing has gone the way we planned. I'm every bit as challenged as by anything I ever did in the private sector, and I get to use my business background. It's much more meaningful. And I'm really, really glad I've done it."

Tavia Grant

Meet Brian Levy: Now a medical student, he looks back at his 30-year rise to the top of the Source by Circuit City and his decision to move on

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