August 6, 2020
By Phil De Luna, Corporate Knights
When I was young, all I wanted to be when I grew up was white. As a new Canadian living in Windsor, Ontario, I didn’t want to be seen as the “Filipino” kid. I wanted to have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of adobo chicken on rice for lunch. I wanted to belong, like everyone else.
As I charged through youth and into adolescence, I realized that it wasn’t necessarily white that I wanted to be – I just wanted to be successful. But I never had a professional role model who looked like me. Sure, Filipino people are considered hard workers (something my parents never let me forget), but the positions I would see them occupy were low-skilled and service work – janitors, customer service, labourers. Always the nurse, but never the doctor. To be clear, these are honourable professions: my partner is a nurse, and in my humble opinion, she is the best that humanity has to offer. These are, after all, the workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
I learned early on that education would be the tool I needed to forge a better life. I leveraged my thirst for knowledge into a PhD at the University of Toronto, where I had the luck to be mentored by professor Ted Sargent – one of the most ambitious, effective and successful people I’ve ever known. Suddenly, I was publishing in the world’s best scientific journals, travelling the world, summer interning at IBM in New York or UC Berkeley in California, and competing in the finals of the Carbon XPRIZE. Today, I run a seven-year, $57 million collaborative research program at the National Research Council to develop transformative technologies to decarbonize Canada’s economy.
At 28, I’m the youngest-ever director of the NRC. I sit on the board of directors for CMC Research Institutes, a non-profit focused on industrial decarbonization. I am a mentor for Creative Destructive Lab, an accelerator that brings science-based start-ups to life. I can proudly say I clawed my way to the decision-making table. I owe a lot of this success to the mentors in my life – all of whom were white. As they say, it’s all about who you know. Unfortunately, many visible minorities don’t know many leaders.