By SONIA WEST
“A culture is strong when people work together—for each other. A culture is weak when people work against each other—for themselves. Success is a team sport.” This wisdom encapsulates the fibre of the honest, authentic, and humble nature of Ajay Patel, President and CEO of Vancouver Community College (VCC).
Drishti Magazine had the glee of sitting down with Ajay, hearing about his humble beginnings and journey to his present-day success. He may be the president, but he always gives credit to his team of 1,200 employees at the College.
Ajay Patel is a first-generation Southeast Asian Canadian with roots in Fiji and family origins in Gujarat, India. Growing up in East Vancouver as an immigrant settler, Ajay is mindful of the truth and history of this land that is traditional and territorial to the Coast Salish peoples. Ajay’s lived experience relates to the rich diversity in Metro Vancouver and Canada that comes with its own interconnected and complex challenges. As one of the very few visible minorities (and the only one of South Asian descent) president at the helm in one of BC’s 25 public post secondary institutions, Ajay recounts key moments of his life with us. Here we learn about his work at VCC, the oldest college in BC tracing its roots back to 1890 that today trains over 16,000 students annually across two campuses. Ajay’s leadership at VCC reflects his values centred in family and community.
“I feel the responsibility to advance my institution’s culture and the sector’s approach of safely supporting Indigenization (including UNDRIP and DRIPA) and equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). One thing I am most proud of at VCC is that we hired on merit and talent, and the result was the most diverse leadership team in post secondary institutions across the country that is making waves in the sector for our performance and approach.”
Ajay and his middle brother emigrated to Canada in the 1970s. They lived with his aunt (Father’s sister) and grandfather, who raised him. His parents would later immigrate to Canada in the ’90s with his youngest brother. Alongside his cousins, Ajay would work at the family businesses: the well-known landmark, the original South Asian grocery store, Patel Supermarket on Commercial Drive. The family also owned a chain of movie cinemas. This often meant school from Monday through Friday and work Friday nights, Saturdays, and Sundays. This interaction and responsibility at a young age would build his interpersonal skills and confidence. He grew up in a time where ignorance labeled every darker-skinned person as a Paki.
“I don’t think I recognized some of the systemic racism built in; sometimes we’re just brought up that silence was the price you pay to be an immigrant.” He didn’t understand his isolation but recognized that he felt inferior. Hence, he thought, to better keep his head down.
Ajay and his wife, son, and daughter stay rooted and connected with their Hindu faith and background, maintaining and celebrating their culture. “As much as I’m sharing all the struggles, I was always on solid foundation my whole life: my family and the Patel Community Association of BC—They are how I kept connected to my culture.”
Ajay recalls a transformative moment when he felt lost in his late teens and early 20s. He had a desire to go to the temple. He recounts his experience with Sharad Bhai, the Hindu temple priest on Albert Street in Vancouver. Sharad, who has since retired and lives in Burnaby, would guide Ajay without judgment. “I used to go to that temple if Mom and Dad took me or my aunt took me, but this was one of those days where I don’t know what drew me to the temple, perhaps because I have been struggling with something I can no longer remember. I went to the temple in the middle of the day. Sharad Bhai came down and let me in. I walked in, bowed down, donated, and gave my prasad. Then he just talked to me, asked my name, and said I could return anytime.”
Ajay emphasizes we can all learn from one another. Every person has value and can offer a perspective and unique view, different from your own. “I was a soccer coach for female’ provincial team during my mid to late 20s. Coaching taught me a lot about leadership, empathy, and understanding: putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes. He jokes, “If I ever had to write a book about leadership, I would entitle it ‘Everything I Learned About Leadership from teenager female athletes.’ We’re always learning, and it doesn’t mean that one knows more just because one is older.”
Ajay loves spending time at home with his wife and kids. “I always joke with my daughter. We never want to live in a the big house because we won’t be able to yell to find each other.”
For Ajay, he does not agree with work-life balance, but a work-life integration- and work is not just passion but also fun. “I love my work. It is a privilege to be in education, serving learners from all walks of life to access and achieve their dreams, and to do this with teams of people I respect and am inspired by.”
With his first five-year appointment at VCC nearing completion, Ajay looks back on his remarkable achievements to date, and ahead with excitement for the next five years.
“VCC has built and shaped our city and province for over 130 years. Our ambitious Campus Plan earned a record setting $271M investment from the provincial government this summer, advancing our first project on the Broadway campus- the new Centre for Clean Energy & Automotive Innovation. This sets in motion our downstream redevelopment strategy to create over 3 million square foot of buildable space generating upwards of $3B in construction activities to produce more than 3,200 units of purpose-built, mixed-use housing as well as daycare and civic amenities that our learners, essential workers, urban Indigenous members desperately need.
The word ‘community’ is in our name at VCC. And that’s how we embarked on our 10-year Strategic Innovation Plan, committed to Truth & Reconciliation, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Mental Health & Wellness, and Climate Justice. Our campus plan demonstrates exactly that and our governments, industries, neighbours see it. It is not just my job to share the VCC story every day- we are making a difference for people, their families and communities and there is no better cause for my life. My work and life are truly integrated.”
In every facet of his life, whether as father, husband, son, president, or coach— and in everything he does, from personal to professional life, Ajay involves everyone and respects, values, and appreciates their unique contributions.
Ajay understands who he is and embraces his Indian and Canadian sides. He says that wisdom is forward in his career and his personal life. He shares that before this interview, he and his family, numbering 25-30 members, had been rehearsing a Bollywood dance for a family wedding. “My nephew is getting married, so my son and I were just getting fitted for kurtas. My daughter has also taken to it with the six outfits every time. I spent a lot of time at Payal Business Centre!”
What does the future hold for Ajay Patel?
“All the roles I’ve had in my life, personal or professional, I never went looking for; these opportunities came to my doorstep, and while I couldn’t predict that, I always kept an open mind and took a step forward into them with gratitude. So, I would keep going that way. Diversity is strength. It didn’t come easy but now I embrace it. I now know it’s only when we have diverse voices at the table can we make the right societal decisions.”
Ajay wants to acknowledge many colleagues who provided their support and expertise in achieving these successes.
“None of this would have been possible without the teams I have worked with, my family (especially my wife, Ketu, who has stood by me for 30 years), and the South Asian community support I have always received. I want this story to inspire others in the community to pursue their aspirations and take on leadership roles. It will make for a more prosperous society.”