Shreeraj Patel remembers vividly when his parents would send him to elementary school with traditional Indian food that others would call smelly. He recalls the glances from peers and teachers when he’d speak fluently in French, almost like it was yesterday.
It was a time for the Winnipeg business leader when being a first-generation Canadian was all people could make of him. "Not anymore though," he told the Free Press Tuesday. "Things have definitely changed."
Patel is now chairman of the city’s 124-year-old Chamber of Commerce, appointed at a ceremony last week. It’s a responsibility, he says, he doesn’t take lightly — especially stepping into it during COVID-19.
Still, he knows the struggle of being a latchkey kid in Winnipeg all too well. And in his new role, he hopes to do justice to the immigrant parents who worked every day to get him to this point.
"It certainly wasn’t easy," he said. "I definitely gave my family all the reasons not to entirely believe in me."
Before he graduated with honours from the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba in 2002; and even before he went on to earn an MBA at the University of Phoenix in 2008, Patel failed his science degree at the University of Winnipeg.
"It just wasn’t my passion," he said. "But it was all that I was expected to do and so I went ahead with it."
Because he was put on academic suspension, Patel was forced to take the year off. But as he stayed away from school and worked a retail job during that difficult time, he says he found his calling.
"I didn’t know it then, but I just loved business and everything about it."
Patel now works as vice-president (commercial and financial services) at the Royal Bank of Canada, before which he was senior account manager for real estate at the bank. He also worked at BMO Financial Group for eight years before joining RBC, as a credit manager and BMO commercial account manager in Winnipeg and Vancouver.
It’s the expertise from those 18 years in the finance sector that Patel hopes to bring to the table as chairman of the chamber.
But it’s also his own personal experience that he says will help him lead the way.
"Certainly, it’s that kind of guidance that’s needed for our members during COVID-19," says Loren Remillard, the chamber’s president and CEO.
"More than ever, we need a leader right now," he said. "Our business community is in deep trouble, and I really can’t imagine anyone better than Shreeraj."
Patel’s predecessor Jessica Dumas, the first Indigenous woman to chair the organization, agrees.
"He just doesn’t say something and not do it," she said. "He does it, and he does it well — better than anyone could."
Those are skills, Dumas added, that Patel will need as he steps into the limelight to advocate for Winnipeg’s businesses — big and small.
"The year that you’re appointed in goes by so fast," she said.
"But I definitely know that Raj will make sure he fosters the same sense of diversity and inclusivity in the community that I did."
Patel says those aren’t just buzzwords for him — they represent a lifetime of struggle.
"And as I’ve seen members of our community struggle during the pandemic, I know that people who look like me have struggled the most," he said.
"I can’t wait to work hard and make them feel seen, making sure they’re given a fighting chance in a community that’s allowed me to get where I am."
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
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