Sobhana Jaya-Madhavan, SFU’s associate vice-president of external relations, was recognized by the global Women Economic Forum (WEF) with a Woman of the Decade Award in Education and Leadership.

Faculty and Staff

SFU education champion walks the talk during her life journey

June 27, 2019
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By Diane Luckow

Sobhana Jaya-Madhavan has always believed that education is not only the key to transforming lives, but also to transforming society, and is perhaps the most effective way to achieve emancipation, especially among women and young girls.

As SFU’s associate vice-president of external relations for the last two years, Jaya-Madhavan has really been walking the talk as she builds relationships with community partners, business leaders, government, non-profits and other institutions.

Championing the power of education has been a constant throughout her career, as well as in her considerable volunteer work at home and abroad.

So, it’s no surprise that the global Women Economic Forum (WEF) recognized her in April in India with a Woman of the Decade Award in Education and Leadership.

“In addition to academic excellence, we greatly honor the empathetic leadership of Sobhana Jaya-Madhavan. With her vital values of community connection and humanitarian outreach, she has enriched the education ecosystem with exemplary leadership toward creating a better world for all,” says Harbeen Arora, global chairperson, WEF and All Ladies League (ALL).

At the same time, Jaya-Madhavan was also recognized by the Shiromani Institute, a think-tank in India, which nominated her for a Bharat Shiromani Award that recognizes Indian expats who are improving society. As well, Didihood (“Sisterhood” of South Asian creatives in Canada) recently profiled her as one of 10 South Asian role models.

Jaya-Madhavan receives the award in India in April.

Born in Malaysia and schooled in India, Jaya-Madhavan earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai in 1991, and worked as a student social worker in Mumbai’s slums. After graduation, she worked in Malaysia’s non-profit sector before immigrating to Canada in 1995.

“My first job in Canada was a volunteer job as a seniors’ recreation assistant,” she recalls.

And while her first paid employment was a minimum-wage job as an usher at GM Place (now Rogers Arena) in Vancouver, she continued to apply for positions in her field. Eventually, she landed a job as an employment counsellor with Coast Mental Health Foundation, and then as a frontline child protection worker in Surrey for the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development (MFCD).

She spent two decades with the B.C. government, eventually becoming the first executive director for the Provincial Office of Domestic Violence, and then stepped in as acting assistant deputy minister with the MFCD. During this time, her colleagues nominated her for The British Columbia Medal of Good Citizenship.

“There were many highlights, but the best were working in Haida Gwaii and in the MCFD provincial office in Victoria.”

“One of the many portfolios I held was children in care, and one of the main areas was better support and educational outcomes for children in care,” she says.

She returned to India for a short time, where she joined an international publishing service company, Newgen KnowledgeWorks, as associate vice-president of organizational excellence, and head of human resources.

Jaya-Madhavan’s interest in community engagement began in her teens in India when, at 16, she became the first female president of the Rotaract Club (part of Rotary International) in her town. Over the years she has volunteered for the Guild of Service, the Aga Khan Foundation and many other organizations in Canada and India.

She has also worked as an advisor to several organizations, including pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. She is currently an advisor to the Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival and TechDiva, a non-profit social enterprise in India that makes coding and tech training accessible to girls and women from slums and disadvantaged backgrounds.

“At TechDiva, we are using education to try to disrupt the poverty cycle,” she says. “Education is powerful as a disruptor and as an equalizer.”

A member of the We for She Advisory Committee in Vancouver, she also finds time to mentor youth, professionals and immigrants, and has been a homestay parent to more than 50 international students attending school in Canada.

“As I look back, two things have made the biggest impact on my life,” says Jaya-Madhavan.

“Having extremely caring and progressive parents, and them sending me from Malaysia to South India to attend boarding school from age five. That one decision—to educate me—changed my life profoundly. I have had a life and career that are very meaningful.”

“Education did not just change my life, it has had a profound impact on my family, especially on my two sons, and has given me so many avenues to practice kindness,” she says.