By any standard, John McCall MacBain is one of Canada’s great success stories.
A Valedictorian at McGill (BA’80), a Rhodes Scholar and a Harvard Business School MBA, McCall MacBain is one of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs and a visionary philanthropist who supports initiatives in education, the environment, and health and wellness.
And, on July 1, McCall MacBain began his three-year term as McGill’s Chancellor. McCall MacBain succeeds Michael A. Meighen.
So why is it, when asked what message he would like to pass on to McGill students, McCall MacBain begins listing his failures?
“I applied for 37 [MBA] scholarships and I lost 36 of them. I think I’m in the Guinness Book of Records as the number one loser of scholarships,” he says with a chuckle during a Zoom interview. “But nobody remembers that because the one scholarship I did get sent me to Harvard Business School.”
“It doesn’t matter how many scholarships you lose – it’s the one you get that can change your life forever. And that applies to every venture you undertake.”
The importance of resilience
The Chancellor talks about how resilience is a vital quality for students, but a resilience that is more profound than just picking themselves up after a setback.
He talks about pivoting. McCall MacBain has made a career, literally, out of his ability to pivot after failure – a quality he developed early in life.
“I always dreamed of being a swimming instructor for the City of Niagara Falls,” he says. After getting certified, McCall MacBain was fired from the job because he had to miss some time to compete in a Spanish-language competition. “I ended up starting my own swimming school in direct competition to the City of Niagara Falls – and I never looked back in my entrepreneurial career.”
A talented high school wrestler, McCall MacBain lost the All-Ontario Championships to Ray Takahashi, a future Olympian and Commonwealth Games gold medalist. The loss forced him to re-evaluate his interests and priorities. “I decided to turn my focus to student politics,” he says.
He was elected student president of Niagara Falls’ A.N. Myer High School in Grade 13 and, once at McGill, he served as President of the Students Society.
“Losing that wrestling match and getting fired from that swim instructor job were both really bad days,” he says. “But because I reacted positively, they led to many more great days. Bad days happen. What matters most is how you react to them.”
Taking risks and following untraditional paths
Developing this resilience and the ability to change course, sometimes radically, allows students the opportunity to find the path best suited for them. “We can’t be afraid to take risks or to pursue our passions – even if they are considered ‘untraditional,’” says McCall MacBain. “And students have to be willing to take risks, both in their social positions – where they want to make a stand – and in the areas and fields in which they want to get involved.”
He believes that this confidence and strength of conviction is fostered by the University’s diversity, both of the student body and of the opportunities it provides.
“Having so many international students at the University benefits everyone because it encourages the exchange of ideas and a wide-range of experiences. It promotes independence of thought,” he says. “But there is also the diversity of McGill’s clubs that allows students to explore – and flourish – in so many different areas.”
Supporting student success, interests
Helping students flourish has long been a preoccupation for McGill’s 20th Chancellor.
Following his own unconventional path McCall MacBain, at the apex of his entrepreneurial success, sold his company Trader Classified Media, the world’s leading company in classified advertising. He used the proceeds to found the McCall MacBain Foundation in 2007. “Our Foundation is committed to three areas of funding that I think are of particular interest to students,” says McCall MacBain, “education and scholarships, climate change and environment, and health – particularly youth mental health issues.”
The beneficiary of a number of scholarships (at McGill, Oxford and Harvard), McCall MacBain knows firsthand how financial support can impact a student’s life. Wanting to offer that opportunity to future generations, McCall MacBain and his wife Marcy established the McCall MacBain Scholarships at McGill in 2019. The comprehensive graduate scholarships program provides outstanding students from Canada and internationally with the opportunity to pursue a master’s or professional degree, combined with a world-class enrichment program.
The first cohort of McCall MacBain Scholars will begin their fully funded studies at McGill this fall.
The McCall MacBains have also given generously to the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships in South Africa; the Kupe Leadership Scholarships at the University of Auckland; the Loran Scholars Foundation in Canada, and to other educational causes. In 2013, the Foundation committed £75 million to the Rhodes Trust in Oxford to help fund the Rhodes Scholarships and to aid in the expansion of the scholarship program around the world.
Laying the foundation for the future
As Chancellor for McGill’s Bicentennial celebrations, McCall MacBain is direct when asked to look ahead to the biggest challenges that will face the University in its next 200 years.
“I think one real challenge will be for the University, as a public institution, to continue to serve the greater public, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and around the world, while maintaining its independence,” he says. “I think it was David Johnston, former Principal of McGill and Governor General, who said McGill’s unique in that we’ve got that balance of excellence, inclusiveness and such a strong partnership with the public – all while being able to govern ourselves.
“I’m a big proponent of public universities,” he says. “McGill has a unique public nature thanks to a strong network of alumni and other donors who help the University do things that might not be possible in many other public institutions.”
In the end, McCall MacBain says, the most important thing is for McGill to remain student-centric. “Students are really at the centre of the University. I think we are very fortunate to have Suzanne Fortier as Principal because she has always made this her priority,” he says. “Students are our future – our future professors, politicians and community leaders. The more we can support them today, the stronger our world will be tomorrow.”