Lunch with UBC Sauder School of Business dean Robert Helsley

Robert Helsley wants students at UBC Sauder to think about more than money

The Kitsilano resident wants students at UBC to think about more than money

After graduating from Princeton University, dual Canadian and American citizen Robert Helsley landed his first faculty role at UBC three decades ago. Helsley, now in his second five-year term as dean of the UBC Sauder School of Business, talks about what drew him to leave the U.S. and why the school has high aspirations.

This much I know…

“I believe in the power of education for all peoples and societies. It’s been transformative for me, and the opportunity to have that effect on others is really rewarding. I would say everybody who is involved in the university at some level is impacted by the ability of education to change the path of a young person’s life. Personally, the culture of diversity in Vancouver has been so important; there is so much respect for the benefits of diversity, which you don’t really have in the U.S.—it’s insular. It’s so much richer here; we have [63,000] students who have come from 160 countries in the undergraduate courses.”

“There is, however, a traditional view that business schools are focused on monetary measures of success. My feeling is that there’s a tipping point, and increasingly the social impact of business is a bigger part of the conversation, and one of the key things our school does is to think about that. In recent years, we’ve tried to create a higher purpose.”

“We spend time talking about values in business—it’s good for an institution to have something bigger that it’s trying to focus on—and the fact that there’s a potential for business to contribute to positive social change. There’s a demand from consumers and employees that companies have a set of values and live up to them. People want to feel like they are making a difference. It’s crystallized in recent years that our students will be taking on leadership roles in the future, and we would like them to be the kind of leaders that drive positive social change. So they think about how their business impacts society, social outcomes, the environment and broader things.”

“Business schools tend to be isolated—and I’ve always seen that as a lost opportunity. So we’ve been consciously trying to create ways to engage with others at university to find a new way for the business school to add value. One area where we are truly unique is the dual degree, where students can study for an undergraduate degree in almost anything at the university and study for a master’s in business at the same time [and an additional six months], which is really cool. The idea is that if you take someone who has a technical or musical interest, for example, and add some business training, it makes them much more effective in what they can turn it into as a career. It not only adds to the diversity of the school, but parents love it, too.”

School master

Age: 62

Position: Dean of UBC Sauder School of Business and Grosvenor Professor of Cities, Business Economics and Public Policy since 2012
Previous roles: Professor and chair in real estate development at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley; director of the UBC Centre for Real Estate and Urban Economics
School: PhD and MA in economics from Princeton University
Kudos: Co-editor of the Journal of Urban Economics ; former cochair of the Fisher Center for Real Estate & Urban Economics, UC Berkeley
Lunch: Najib’s Special deep-fried cauliflower at Nuba‘s Gastown location