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Learning to Lead with Empathy: MBA Alumna Finds Meaning in Financial Services, Non-Profit Sector

October 10, 2023

When Nav Dhillon (MBA ’18) went out to a bar one evening, she didn’t realize her life would be different from that point forward.

Then twenty years old, Dhillon had been pursuing an undergraduate degree in political science. She had headed out for a fun night with family and friends. But when she was standing outside the venue, someone threw a beer bottle, and through a series of tragically unfortunate events, the shattered glass hit her right in the left eye. The terrifying event led to her losing sight in that eye entirely.

Nav Dhillon, MBA '18

As Dhillon explains, the physical and emotional repercussions of that night impacted her significantly. She was put through multiple surgeries – in one case having to recover for months in isolation.

“I came to terms with the realization that I was going to be living the rest of my life with one eye.”

Dhillon faced immense stigma following the accident and struggled with depression as a result.

Determined to find her way forward, she applied and was accepted into Rotman’s Full Time MBA program. She’d always known that she wanted to be a business leader.

What she didn’t know was how her personal story could become her most effective leadership tool.

That particular lesson, she says, came from her time at Rotman.

“I used to think my ability to lead would be based on my accomplishments, accolades, and ability to get things done,” Dhillon explains. “At Rotman, I learned that leadership from a top-down perspective is really being phased out. There’s a whole other part of leadership that relies on things like emotional intelligence, social skills, and most of all, empathy.”

In her two years at the school, she was involved in the Rotman Sports Business Association, and made meaningful connections with other students and staff.

But something else happened while at Rotman that shifted her perspective: she began to understand the type of leader she wanted to become.

Dhillon credits Rotman’s MBA classes, workshops, professors, and the Rotman Leadership Development Lab for much of that shift in perspective. She explains that Rotman’s approach to leadership development is very fulsome, modern, and that professors encouraged her and her peers to embrace who they are on their journey. 

“In Rotman’s Leadership Development Lab, for example, they really focus on self-development, as opposed to just trying to collect the accolades and the titles.”

"There’s a whole other part of leadership that relies on things like emotional intelligence, social skills, and most of all, empathy.”

Nav Dhillon, MBA '18

After graduation, Dhillon began a career in the financial services industry at CIBC – specifically specializing in payments technology. While financial services provided a more traditionally successful route for honing her MBA skills, by this point she knew she wanted to round out her approach. She began to be on the lookout for opportunities to share her personal story as well.

After finding the right platform, Dhillon decided to share what happened to her eye across the internal CIBC community. Her colleagues expressed gratitude and began to share stories about their own struggles with disability or other difficulties as well.

“I guess I facilitated a platform for other people to also come forth with a challenge they’ve had but never spoke about.”

Encouraged by this reaction, Dhillon says she realized there was an absence of resources for people who had an eye injury like hers, and in 2021 she launched 1iCollective – a non-profit that aims to empower people impacted by sight loss.

“I never had a support group, so I often felt alienated. It’s almost like I had to create the group that I didn't have.”

1iCollective organizes events, hosts educational programs, and shares resources and tools. Recent partnerships include Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and the organization has a membership of more than 2,500 people across the world.

Dhillon recently moved from CIBC to Meridian Credit Union. She is still working in payments technology – which she describes as a very exciting space right now.

She plans to continue to be very involved in the non-profit space and hopes to further expand 1iCollective’s reach. “I’m just very grateful I could harness my background, my upbringing, and even my accident,” Dhillon says.

“I was able to use all of that to become a more effective leader.”

Written by Meaghan MacSween | More student and alumni stories →