Google Search
Giving back is a lesson this executive learned early in life

Charles Brown's gifts to U of T Scarborough help lower-income students pay their tuition. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Charles Brown (BA, 1978) was 10 years old when he brought home his first paycheque, and he wasn’t very impressed by the sum after all his hard work delivering newspapers. But his father taught him a lifelong lesson that day.

“I still remember how little money it seemed to be, and then my dad said, ‘Now we have to set some of that aside for people who are less fortunate,’” says Brown, president of The Source, one of Canada’s largest retailers. “He taught me that if you’re fortunate enough to have good circumstances, you should share that with people who – for whatever reason – need some help.”

Brown has stayed true to his father’s values, giving his time and financial support to organizations focused on young people, the arts and education. At U of T Scarborough, he has been a regular participant in the Leader2Leader conferences. “The real value for me at these events is not what I have to say about business and leadership, but the interaction with students,” he says. “Some of them also reach out to me after the conference. We’ve even hired a few into The Source because we’ve been so impressed by them.”

Brown’s decision to make a financial donation to the campus came after what he says was an eye-opening conversation with Georgette Zinaty, executive director of Development and Alumni Relations. “We got talking about the large number of students at UTSC who come from lower-income households, and how the need for financial assistance is growing.” He opted to create two awards for undergraduate students through U of T’s Boundless Promise Program, which commits the university to matching minimum donations of $25,000 in perpetuity.

“I got a great education at UTSC, and it got me started in my career. To support these students – to just give them a leg up – was a pretty easy choice.” It’s tougher for students now, he says. “When I graduated, if you had a bachelor’s degree you got a good job shortly after you graduated. Now there are far fewer jobs, and the standards are much higher. Students also come out with a much bigger debt load.”

Brown says his tuition during the 1970s was negligible compared with the costs today. He got by with part-time jobs, including one at Robarts Library, and his memories of his undergraduate years are overwhelmingly positive.

When he was deciding where to attend university, Brown says he was looking for a less rigid atmosphere than the kind found at some of the older, traditional schools. “At UTSC I got the slightly different perspective that I was looking for. It seemed more relaxed, and I felt that people genuinely cared about whether I did well.”

And he did do well, earning high marks as a history and political science major while making time for some extracurricular experiences. He played clarinet in the engineering society’s Lady Godiva Memorial Bnad (yes that's the correct spelling), dabbled in campus radio and “borrowed” cafeteria trays for sledding on more than one winter day. “They were formative years in many ways,” says Brown, “I learned to think critically, give presentations and write well. All of this gave me confidence, which is essential in business.”

Brown has been a leader in the telecommunications industry for over 25 years. He was executive vice president of strategic initiatives with Bell Canada from 2006-2011, where one of his key responsibilities was delivering telecommunications services for the 2010 Winter Olympics. He has also held executive positions at Wave Wireless, Clearnet Communications and BCE Mobile.

In addition to his philanthropic commitment to the campus, Brown holds senior volunteer roles with the United Way, Kids Help Phone and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. “These causes are all important to me, but I see education as a cornerstone in people’s lives. It allows people to get good jobs, which is important for self-worth, mental health and, ultimately, a stable society,” he says. “If you can help just one person get started – that’s worth it.”


© University of Toronto Scarborough