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Business prof and Offsetters CEO James Tansey marches to the beat of his own drummer at UBC

From hanging with pot-smoking celebrities to attending heavy-metal concerts, UBC Sauder School of Business professor and social entrepreneur James Tansey seems far more rock ’n’ roll than your typical academic. With apologies for slight deafness from seeing AC/DC the night before, the Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing’s executive director and CEO of Offsetters—a Vancouver group providing companies with carbon-management solutions—rhapsodizes about drinking with Woody Harrelson. 

Harrelson—an investor in Prairie Paper, a company that turns waste wheat straw into paper and which Offsetters works with—popped over to Tansey’s Fairview home while in town recently. “He started imitating Bill Murray halfway through the evening and I just kept pinching myself that Woody Harrelson’s on my roof doing Bill Murray impersonations—it was just really weird,” he says. “He’s completely down to earth.”

JAMES TANSEY'S FAVOURITES

1. “I enjoy the sharing plates at Stable House Bistro (1520 W. 13th St., Vancouver)–tasty charcuterie and cheeses, and seriously good wine.”

2. “For a romantic, quiet, lovely spot with an amazing kitchen, I head to La Pentola at the Opus Hotel (350 Davie St., Vancouver).”

3. “I buy my drip coffee and beans for home in the JJ Bean in the Marine Building (353 Burrard St., Vancouver).”


Although momentarily star-struck, Tansey himself appears to take this down-to-earth, less ivory-towers approach to the postgraduate world in which he lives. The 42-year-old British transplant is somewhat of an unlikely academic: he never yearned for a university career but nevertheless found himself on an accelerated postgraduate path after “being fascinated by a topic I couldn’t let go.” (Tansey defended his PhD on the sociology of environmental risk at England’s University of East Anglia in 1999 at the age of 26.)

He joined UBC’s faculty of graduate studies in 2000 before going on to his role at the Sauder School of Business in 2006—with a couple of years in between back in the U.K., working as a lecturer in science and technology at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, and setting up Offsetters in 2005. On leaving Oxford—his colleagues thought him “insane”—he adds, “There was always a sentiment there that you had made it versus UBC which I felt was growing into its boots. So I wondered where I wanted to be for 30 years: port and Stilton nights around the college quad or a place that’s going to become one of the top 10 or 15 universities in the world?”

As we lunch on quinoa salad with chicken (only after being assured of its free-range status) at Boulevard Kitchen in the Sutton Place Hotel, Tansey explains he’s always seen his UBC role as symbiotic with business. The Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing—part of Sauder—applies the institution’s knowledge and research to real-world problems in areas such as the low-carbon economy and First Nations economic development (off campus, Offsetters’ clients include Harbour Air, the B.C. government and the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games).

“I have an old-fashioned view that academia is supposed to make a difference and it’s part of why we’re paid by the public to do that. It’s not just to keep socially maladjusted people off the streets,” the father of two daughters says with a smile. “There’s some social mandate where we are meant to make the world a slightly better place.”

On another note, Tansey is fast earning a reputation for outspokenness. He was openly critical of a fellow faculty member’s blog on last year’s sudden departure of president Arvind Gupta. “Debate is important,” he says, adding that faculty disagreements or what he calls the “politics of proximity” are par for the course at universities.

This enthusiasm for business combined with a passion for B.C.’s outdoor pursuits—skiing in Whistler, sailing the Gulf Islands and learning to fly fish on local lakes—makes Tansey unlikely to be lured back to the Old Country. “I just like the sense of expectation and ambition there is in this city, but without it being arrogant.”