Craig Kielburger talks social change, leadership at Countdown to Success

two men sitting on a stage for an interview
Monday, November 23, 2015 - 8:19am
Sharon Aschaiek

Craig Kielburger has long been at the forefront of fighting for the rights of poor and exploited children. But at a packed University of Toronto Mississauga auditorium last Thursday night, the co-founder of Free the Children says that to him, real leadership comes from behind.

“A leader isn’t a person out front. It’s not the person who crosses the finish line first…The definition of a successful leader is the person who empowers someone else,” said Kielburger at UTM’s fourth Countdown to Success, a free public event sponsored by CPA Ontario that was held at the Institute for Management & Innovation.

It’s a piece of wisdom that was shared with Kielburger by the late Nelson Mandela, and one that has greatly informed the 32-year-old’s two-decade journey of international human rights activism. In a conversation with IMI director Hugh Gunz, the Thornhill, Ont. native shared the genesis, evolution and incredible accomplishments of that journey, what he has learned along the way, and what he still hopes to achieve.

group of students wearing blue Me to We t-shirtsKielburger’s passion for a social justice bent was ignited when he was just 12 years old. That’s when he read in the newspaper about the murder of another, less-fortunate 12-year-old boy in Pakistan — former child slave and human rights advocate, Iqbal Masih. He was able to convince some classmates to join him in trying to advocate for disadvantaged children, and the movement eventually turned into Free the Children.

He explained to the crowd how, with the guidance and support of his parents, and business leaders and philanthropists such as Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson and eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll, he and his brother, Marc, have been able to grow Free the Children into an international charity. The charity engages students in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. to carry out its social change work, and honours them in stadium-sized “We Day” celebrations.

At one point Kielburger, who has a degree in peace and conflict studies from U of T and an MBA from York University, told the crowd that if they are looking to enter the non-profit world, their business skills will serve them well.

“Yes, we have people with backgrounds in African studies and development studies, but what we need, and what we’re aggressively hiring, is people with backgrounds in logistics, communications, commerce, finance, accounting, marketing, computer science…All these critical skill sets that any company requires, an effective non-profit requires,” he said.

That pragmatic, business-minded approach has enabled Free the Children to partner with communities in more than 40 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to develop sustainable villages that emphasize education, clean water, health, food security and entrepreneurship. Kielburger’s activism now also include Me to We, a social enterprise he founded that sells socially and environmentally friendly clothes and accessories, volunteer trips, leadership training and more. The recipient of 15 honorary doctorates and degrees, including the Order of Canada, Kielburger has also written nine books, including his latest, Living Me to We: The Guide for Socially Conscious Canadians.

At the end of the event, when an 11-year-old girl in the audience wearing a “Be the change” t-shirt she had a received at a We Day event asked him what his passion is, he replied:

“Your very question is also the answer to your question. Because my passion is ensuring that the next person who is 10 or 11 or 12 years old finds their passion.”