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Heather Block and Raj Patel

Mentoring Manitoba’s future leaders

UM alumni share their mentorship experiences with the President’s Student Leadership Program

February 25, 2022 — 

Some of the best leadership lessons come from the advice of others. Through the President’s Student Leadership Program (PSLP), UM students have the invaluable opportunity to learn from leaders in our community.

PSLP is the flagship of the James W. Burns Leadership Institute, funded through a visionary endowment to UM in 2019. For the past three years, it has connected more than 50 students with 22 mentors across all sectors, including UM alumni Raj Patel [BComm(Hons)/02] and Heather Block [BSW/89].

The Asper School of Business, home to the James W. Burns Leadership, connected with Block and Patel to hear their perspectives on the President’s Student Leadership Program, why students should apply, and what they as mentors have learned through this journey.

Know an aspiring student leader? Encourage them to apply for the 2022 cohort of the President’s Student Leader Program. Applications are due March 6. 

ASPER: Tell us about your career path, and how it influenced your leadership style, which you bring into your work with the PSLP mentoring initiative.

Heather Block: I graduated from UM in 1989 with my Bachelor of Social Work. When I think about my career post-graduation, I realize that I’ve made a journey from working with individuals (like providing therapy at The Laurel Centre), to working with a specific neighbourhood (such as community development at Andrews Street Family Centre), to working at a city-wide level with United Way. Each of these experiences taught me about the complexity of the issues facing our community as well as about generosity and resilience.

I’m currently Director of Strategic Initiatives at United Way Winnipeg. I’ve been here for 11 years and have had the opportunity to be involved with a number of our key projects and initiatives such as Peg community indicator system, 211 Manitoba, the UW 50th Anniversary, enhancing our approach to workplace employee engagement, and our strategic and annual planning processes. It has been a great place to use my skills, to learn, and – again – to see the generosity and resilience of Winnipeggers. 

While I’m not overtly using my Social Work degree, it has played a key role in making me the leader that I am. A foundational component of social work is to “start where the client is at”. That underlying philosophy has been key to having a relationship and other-centric approach to staff supervision, volunteer engagement, and corporate relationships.

Raj Patel: I’ve been privileged to have had a dynamic and eclectic mix of professional experiences in the finance domain. As a fresh graduate from Asper, at the time, I truthfully didn’t have a master plan for the experiences and skills I wanted to develop. Looking back, I often “fell into” things that were instrumental in helping build core pillars of my foundation as a person.

I seem to have naturally aligned to career opportunities that put me in roles of service. From my first paper route in Waverley Heights at age 9, to working as a stock person at TipTop at age 14, each progressive role evolved my foundational skills. A career in finance was not something I was the direct architect of. I credit outstanding Asper professors and classmates for fuelling my curiosity and passion for finance. I’m deeply appreciative of how organically each career opportunity (and the mentors I was privileged to come across) complemented one another.

ASPER: What motivated you to be involved with the President’s Student Leadership Program?

Heather Block: Is it corny to say that I think I have something to offer? I was interested in the PSLP mentoring initiative as an opportunity to think about and share my perspectives on leadership – and to learn about someone else’s perspectives and ways that they are implementing their leadership. In a world often driven by to-do lists and project deadlines, it was refreshing to think of a mentoring relationship that was simply focused on relationship and conversation. 

Raj Patel: As an Advisory Board member of the James W. Burns Leadership Institute (through which the PSLP operated), I have a unique and privileged platform that enables me to support and empower others through this program. It intrinsically motivates and inspires me on so many levels. The Institute has four critical tenants, but the one that resonates with me is being a community builder and the power of inclusion.

ASPER: Why do you think students should apply for the President’s Student Leadership Program?

Heather Block: This is a great opportunity that I would have loved when I was a student. It’s a chance to share your perspectives and, in the mentoring initiative, to learn from someone whose only objective in the relationship is to help you succeed. It’s also a chance to get to know someone who may be able to open doors for you later on. For example, the student I’m matched with did their undergrad project on housing for folks who are unsheltered. I was able to arrange for them to share their work and thoughts with the person working on housing supply with End Homelessness Winnipeg. And, if you’re lucky, it’s a chance to develop a friendship with someone you wouldn’t otherwise have met!

Raj Patel: Leaders today need to be progressive and innovative, and the PSLP is purposeful in fuelling our community’s next leaders. The power of community is elevated under the program, where the student accesses existing senior leaders from the community to provide guidance and feedback across many domains and disciplines. In today’s extremely fluid and dynamic business environment, we need to ensure we can create capacities for new lines of thought. The PSLP program does just that.

ASPER: On the flip side of the coin, what have you learned as a mentor?

Heather Block: The student leader I’m matched with is in the Faculty of Architecture. It’s been fun getting to know them – learning about where we’re different and where we’re alike. We’ve found places where our leadership styles are similar as well as where we can learn from each other. This student leader has taught me about enthusiasm, following their passion, walking through doors that open when they align with their interests, and about struggling with being a collaborative leader when everything is remote.

Raj Patel: Through a lens of gratitude, I appreciate my privileged role in being able to support and help students as they navigate the world in front of them. Perhaps it’s the father in me, but I actively embrace my role in supporting young people to manifest their greatness. Participating in programs such as the PSLP and its mentoring initiative fills my spiritual bucket.


Thinking about applying or know someone who should? Visit the President’s Student Leadership Program online.

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