By Christine Hearn (BA'70, MA'74)

Zabeen Hirji MBA’94

Zabeen Hirji is chief human resources officer at RBC (Royal Bank of Canada) with global responsibility for human resources, brand, communications, and corporate citizenship. She is one of eight executives responsible for setting the overall strategic direction of the bank. Her awards include Catalyst Canada Honours Champion for leadership in the advancement of women and minorities, WXN Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Hall of Fame, and a Top 25 Women of Influence.

What drew you into the work you do?
Exposing employees to different parts of the business is important at RBC. I worked in banking, operations, and credit cards before moving to human resources (HR). I thought HR would be another rotation, but discovered it is where I can impact both company performance and employee success.

Is there one situation that has been particularly interesting?
When Gord Nixon became CEO, I proposed we articulate our core values and include diversity. I remembered what my mother experienced arriving in Canada, being told “no Canadian experience, no job.” I wanted to change that for the next generation. Gord was totally behind the idea. Today, our values of service, teamwork, responsibility, diversity, and integrity are a unifying force across our businesses.

How did SFU shape your career?  
The broad curriculum, the case studies, and the lively classroom discussions helped develop my integrative thinking skills. At RBC, we’ve built an integrated HR function that draws on cross-disciplinary skills. Thanks in part to what I learned at SFU, we have a team with diverse experiences, including HR professionals, and from across RBC: retail banking, wealth management, finance, risk, communications, IT, and law. And we’ve hired from many industries: retail, technology, pharmaceuticals, government.

What at SFU influenced your thinking?  
I learned the power of diverse teams, studying with students from different backgrounds. I remember working with a doctor from Hong Kong, an American with an IT background, and a management consultant who was balancing school and young children. At first I doubted we could come up with great ideas. It took a lot of work by everyone: good listening skills, patience, paying attention to nuances. It was an important lesson in investing the time up front to build a diverse team, to see that 1+1+1 can equal more than 3.

What do you do in your spare time?
I am energized and inspired by my community involvement where human capital development, youth, and diversity prevail. I’m on the governing council of the University of  Toronto, co-chair of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, and a director of CivicAction, where I chair a youth employment initiative. I also love everything about big cities: the sights, sounds, smells, culture, arts, history, even the chaos. Paris may be my favourite. Last year I took my daughter there for her 18th birthday – a memory that will last forever.

What are you reading right now?
Thrive by Arianna Huffington. As a professional woman with children, I can relate to the tendency to neglect one’s well-being. It’s motivated me to be more disciplined about taking care of myself. I’ve tried different styles of yoga, and I’m learning about mindfulness and reconnecting with old friends.

What music do you listen to?
Baroque. Jazz. Favourites from the ’70s and ’80s. Today’s Top 40. A current favourite is Bach’s cello suites.

Photography by Kourosh Keshiri