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Paul Sabourin to graduates: Learn, earn, and return

Oct 23, 2023

Paul Sabourin at fall convocation

Paul Sabourin, MBA ’80, addressing graduates at fall convocation.

For Paul Sabourin, MBA ’80, three words describe the art of a career: Learn. Earn. Return.

It’s a mantra he learned from a friend who he met through his philanthropic work, and has since embodied in his personal and professional life.

And it’s a mantra that he urged Ivey and Western University graduates to live by as they begin their professional journeys.

Sabourin, co-founder, chair, and chief investment officer of Polar Asset Management, addressed graduates at Western University’s 322nd Convocation on October 20 where he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws. The audience included 239 graduates from Ivey’s HBAMScMaster of Management in Analytics (MM-A), Executive MBA (EMBA), and PhD programs who later participated in a separate Ivey Pledge Ceremony and awards events.

“You might think that you’ve just finished climbing a mountain, but your learning journey and an even bigger climb is about to begin. Think of getting a degree as arriving at base camp,” said Sabourin.

He told the graduates “learn, earn, and return” describes their obligations as citizens who have been provided the gift of post-secondary education, and discussed why each word is important.

Learning starts with humility 

Sabourin said his career in the investing business required him to have strong opinions, but he held them loosely to be open to compelling new facts or perspectives. He encouraged the graduates to embrace the learning that happens every day and not be afraid to shift their views when facts change.

“Lifelong learning must be about humility. It starts from the premise that we have gaps in our knowledge and experience and must remain open to new points of view,” he said.

Earn through life satisfaction  

Although his work as a hedge fund manager focuses on earnings, Sabourin said earning in the context of his motto has nothing to do with money. Instead, it’s what is achieved through hard work, perseverance, and team work.

“Through building something lasting – that's how you'll earn fulfillment and life satisfaction, not just at the office, but in our relationships with our friends and families,” he said. “If you consistently seek out professional and personal challenges and don't forget to keep learning, the business of earning will take care of itself.”

Your obligation to return begins today

Don’t wait until the end of your career to start giving back, says Sabourin. Get involved in causes you believe in, give advice as a mentor, or do something to lift others up. Sabourin said he always tries to return, even in small ways, the favours that have been given to him throughout the years. He told how sharing his business acumen as a board member or volunteer has given him great satisfaction and allowed him to build lifelong friendships. He also encouraged the graduates to give money, if they are able to, noting how he has financially supported student scholarships and educational programming to perpetuate the “learn, earn, and return cycle.” Among other things, Sabourin provided financial support for entrepreneurship programming at Ivey and Western, including through a generous $1-million gift for programs and a new building.

“Your obligation to return begins today,” he said. “Unfortunately, you should be prepared to return without expecting anything back. Sometimes not even a word of thanks. I can promise you that the rewards from what you return will be substantial, even if they're intangible.”

Challenges are learning opportunities

Noting that there have been ups and downs throughout his career, Sabourin told the graduates they will undoubtedly be challenged in unexpected ways. He encouraged them not to shy away from those challenges because that’s how you learn and potentially can stand out as a leader.

“How you deal with difficulty defines you,” he said. “Failure is not a character defect. It's part of life, part of making progress. I wouldn't suggest that you try to fail, but it's OK if you do as long as you learn from it.”

Sabourin shared three tips for navigating difficult times, and that help in good times, too:

  • Find partners, allies, and mentors, and be those things for others as well – Such people are invaluable when times get tough;
  • Know your values and live by them – They’ll protect you from distractions and misdirection; and,
  • Apply your learnings with kindness – You’ll earn and learn more in return.

“If you approach your journey with partners and allies in place and your values in place and with kindness and compassion, you'll learn all that life has to offer,” he said.

Along with some good luck, Sabourin said he chalks up his success to lifelong learning, friendships, living his values, and treating others with kindness.

“Without those I know I wouldn’t be standing here today,” he said. “I challenge you, to ask yourself at every milestone in your life, ‘Am I still learning? Am I earning my achievements by finding and meeting challenges? And what am I doing to return the favours I've received to lift other people up – to learn, earn, and return?’”