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Alumna wins highest honour at Microsoft

Diana Brown wearing the coveted red jacket, given to all Circle of Excellence winners

Seven years ago, when UTSC alumna Diana Brown was applying for her fourth-year co-op placement, she wasn’t sure if she should apply for a position at Microsoft Canada. After all, the software giant was renowned for only hiring employees who have 8 to 10 years of work experience; Brown figured it would be more prudent to do her final co-op term at a company where she might actually get hired on after graduating. But like many, Brown eventually succumbed to the allure of working at one of the world’s most successful companies, even if only for a few months, so she applied anyway.

Brown got the gig. And seven years later, she has won the most prestigious honour an employee at the company can win: the Microsoft Circle of Excellence Award.

“It’s been an unbelievable experience,” says Brown, 29, who is now a Finance Manager at Microsoft Canada. “And without the co-op program at UTSC, there’s no way I’d be where I am now.”

By any measure, Brown’s co-op experience was rather unique.

“My co-op was in the Entertainment and Devices Division,” she says. “And not long after getting there, my supervisor left for a new job. Suddenly, I had this amazing opportunity to show that I could be a leader. It wasn’t just a co-op term anymore. I was forecasting and budgeting, as if I were a full-time employee. Halo 2 was coming out back then. I was still a student, and I was getting pulled into marketing meetings!”

After impressing during her work term, Brown graduated with a BBA from the Management Co-op Program at UTSC in 2005. Meanwhile, Microsoft had recently launched its Microsoft Academy of Campus Hires program, in which promising new graduates are hired and given access to a wide range of resources and experiences to essentially “fast-track” them through the early stages of their careers. Brown, having performed so impressively during her co-op, was immediately hired into this elite Academy.

“They told me I was the best interview they’d ever had,” says Brown with a laugh. “I attribute that to the amazing coaching and interview skills I got from the UTSC co-op office.” Taking this job meant Brown had to change the direction she was headed.  She had already completed the coursework for her CFA, but it turned out she’d need a CMA instead. Undaunted, Brown took the courses necessary to write the entrance exam with the other campus hires in Finance, passed and  got her CMA designation.

“We’re so proud to have Diana as an alumna of UTSC,” says Christine Arsenault, director of management co-op programs at UTSC. “She continues to give so much back to our current students, either through career advice, technical workshops or mentoring students herself. Diana’s excellent leadership and creative abilities make her a wonderful role model.”

Last July, Brown’s career trajectory received an even bigger boost. That‘s when she found out she would receive the Microsoft Circle of Excellence (COE) Award, the company’s highest honour.

Every year, just 300 of Microsoft’s 40,000 subsidiary employees around the world are awarded the COE. The award recognizes the employees’ passion, determination, leadership and contributions towards Microsoft’s success.

Brown was recognized for two specific accomplishments. Last year, when a business director went on maternity leave, Brown stepped into the lurch and provided invaluable leadership. Her new responsibilities included the delivery of a high-pressure presentation to the CEO and CFO of Microsoft Canada. “It was all the directors, all the senior leaders, and me,” says Brown, giggling as she recalls her butterflies that day. Afterwards, Brown received congratulatory emails from the CEO and CFO, praising her composure and suggesting she fit right in with the company’s senior leadership.

Brown was also singled out for the COE Award because of a new program she and a co-worker pitched, designed  and implemented right here at UTSC. Recognizing that many undergraduate students don’t purchase the full Microsoft Office Suite simply because they’re not aware of the product’s full range of functions and capabilities, Brown and her co-worker promoted and led Office workshops on UTSC campus, open to all students who bought the Office Suite. These workshops were such a success for the company that soon they were being rolled out on university campuses across Ontario.

Company tradition holds that CEO Steve Ballmer personally hands out the Circle of Excellence Awards at Microsoft’s annual general meeting, before an audience of 15,000 enthusiastic employees. That evening, the winners enjoy a private dinner with the CEO himself.

But that’s not all.

“Winners are treated like royalty,” says Brown. “We’re put up in the most prestigious hotel, given gifts every night. And then we get an all-expenses paid trip to Monaco for ourselves and a guest.”

Brown flew to Monaco in October and had a fantastic time. But it’s the long-term payoff of this award that most excites her. “Now I’m considered a very high-potential employee,” she says. “Senior levels of leadership are watching my career, and I’m honoured. It’s an amazing feeling.”

And she clearly hasn’t forgotten the value of her co-op experience. “Everything’s come full-circle,” she says. “Now I’m hiring my own co-op students from UTSC.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough