This year, we introduced our new Toast to Success awards, as an effort to recognize leaders who have demonstrated professional growth and strong commitment to the Tamil community. The inaugural recipient of CTPA’s “Established Professional” award is Vinitha Gengatharan.
From becoming the first woman of colour to be elected as the president of the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus’ Students Union 20 years ago to working as the Executive Director of International Engagement at York University, she has accomplished many feats throughout her professional career.
Long-time interest in higher education
Vinitha has been engaged in higher education and community development and has worked with both universities and not-for-profit organizations for over 20 years. Her drive within this field comes from believing in the transformative power of education. Education has the ability to transform one’s life and open up a world of possibilities. Vinitha is committed to developing a growth and excellence mindset, creating access to opportunities for young people and a positive culture for them to develop into the best version of themselves. Her interest in education stems from her belief that it is one of the greatest equalizers. No matter what your background is, education allows us all to grow, succeed and contribute to society.
“It’s about leveling the playing field; access to opportunities that can allow one to know and live their potential and possibilities.”
Vinitha’s involvement in extracurriculars started when she was young in Sri Lanka. She was a prefect in school in Kilinochi where she grew up and for a very short stint at Vembadi Girls School. Vinitha never felt like she had to make a conscious effort to become involved, or that it was a unique or special quality, but rather it was a part of her DNA. Once she immigrated to Toronto, Canada, her involvement in school helped with integrating into the new culture.
Vinitha spoke fondly of one of her inspiring English teachers at Valley Park Middle School and Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute. With a large number of immigrant students in the 1980s, he took a lot of interest in helping them adjust to their new homes. He wanted to show students what is possible for them to achieve and the endless opportunities that are available to them. He really took initiative in enriching his students’ cultural fabric to keep them well-rounded (especially the latch-key immigrant children), by taking them on trips to the theatre-rich Stratford, Ontario and even New York. He stayed after school with the students to re-write essays, and introduced ethics, philosophy and science into the curriculum. He had existential conversations and debates with young, impressionable students. He was her inspiration and mentor to work with young people. His influence still motivates her today to always give back and pay it forward.
“No matter what you are involved in, you should leave a place better than you found it.”
Breaking barriers as a woman of colour
According to her father, ever since she was a young girl, Vinitha has gone after what she wants. At the young age of 21, Vinitha did not think much about being the third female president of UTSC’s Student Union, let alone the first woman of colour. It was not until 10-15 years later that she realized this accomplishment.
She has always been the type of person to take and create opportunities for herself. She takes pride in personally applying to all of her jobs and working hard to get them. Growing up, she never felt that being a minority was a barrier, especially as a woman of colour, until she progressed in her career. Even in fields with a large pool of women, the more seniority you attain in your career, the greater the lack of diversity. This is an area where she especially feels she can contribute towards the advancement of women.
Around the globe
While in high school, Vinitha always knew that she wanted to work for a public-facing not-for-profit organization. While she had an interest in education, she knew she didn’t want to become a teacher. It was only until after she graduated from university that she knew she wanted to work for a post-secondary institution.
Ten years ago, instead of continuing with her career in student development and affairs, she made the switch to international affairs. She always felt a connection with international issues and feels strongly about Canada’s place in the world and the need for more strategic and principled engagement. Vinitha believes there is a large need for young people to develop a global mindset along with the competency to work and engage with people all over the world. She credits her own dual identity as her connection to global issues. Her past work with the Pan-University Lifeline Syria Initiative demonstrates this, where various schools in Toronto, including U of T, Ryerson, York, and OCAD worked on raising money to sponsor over 100 families. Her goal within this initiative was to look for ways to deliver education to those in refugee camps by using technology and educators to deliver local lectures.
“Go global. Many new jobs require global engagement, travel and having intercultural competencies. Learning new languages is also important for the new world of work. I would advise young people to take opportunities, learn a relevant language and build your competencies locally—and globally.”
Empowering others to reach their goals
Vinitha is a member of Tamil Women Rising, an organization she believes is well-needed within the community to encourage and support Tamil women. She believes that women need to be encouraged to be leaders in every area, including STEM and senior leadership. She has always had strong beliefs about the advancement of women, as seen by her time at the Women’s Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough. While she has always encouraged female empowerment informally through coffee chats and mentoring, she is now formally contributing to the dialogue again.
“Instead of talking about how to have a ‘work-life balance’ we should be discussing how to provide more tools for negotiating a promotion, salary or negotiating with your partner.” Since there are enough examples to show that a dual career is possible, Vinitha thinks we should talk about how everyone should have the opportunity to achieve and embrace what they want, no matter what that is.
“If you want something, and you have the potential to achieve a goal, do not let yourself get overlooked. Be heard in boardrooms, have an opinion and contribute to the discussion.”
Especially in this day and age, it is important to support other women and share ideas and opportunities with each other. Vinitha takes pride in surrounding herself with friends who are supportive and have similar aspirations, and focuses on raising them higher. However, with the current environment in which there is a lot of pressure to become highly successful or living a certain lifestyle, Vinitha’s biggest advice is to always focus on what motivates you and where can you find your niche.
When asked what she does to remain happy and challenged in her career, Vinitha states that she makes a conscious effort to be involved in a number of global networks related to her profession. She attends conferences, joins organizations, and even attends events outside of her professional field. In her free time, Vinitha loves to follow geopolitics, see friends and family and listen to Audible books. Her top current reads include “Reimagining Capitalism,” “Becoming” and “Start With Why.” Vinitha stays connected with her colleagues and has mentors who she talks to and receives advice from regularly. She reads up on new research and stays knowledgeable on current developments and issues in order to maintain a unique perspective. For her, it is important to keep up with other governments and analyze what certain jurisdictions are doing better than others, by comparing and contrasting ways in which Canada can make improvements.
Congratulations to Vinitha for winning the Toast to Success Established Professional award!