“I consider myself an edge-dweller”
Prav Pillay has had a contemplative, reflective personality for as long as he can remember. As a child, he often skipped out of day camp to bike to the library (after a pit stop at the local Becker’s for a pack of licorice). He quips that part of the library’s allure was that it was air conditioned, but, really, he spent entire days there as a nine-year-old because he was fascinated by information and exploring the unknown.
It’s no wonder, then, that Pillay was eventually caught up in the gravitational pull of McMaster’s Arts & Science program. And while he says now that it was a perfect match for him, the 1987 grad admits that he almost ended up on a very different path.
“It was totally happenstance that I ended up in the Arts & Science program,” says Pillay, explaining that he originally intended to pursue a degree in engineering. A failed algebra exam in Grade 13 took a toll on his confidence, so he changed gears and instead applied to the Faculty of Arts & Science at three different universities — or so he thought.
“When I got the admissions packages in the mail, I was shocked to see that Arts & Science at McMaster wasn’t a faculty at all — it was a program, and I was so intrigued by that,” he recalls.
“I looked at the materials that they sent, and this thing happened inside of me — I thought, ‘wow, I can actually pursue my love for science and I can explore these great writers and philosophers?’ In that moment, I knew I had to enroll — it was the only place I wanted to be.”
Coming into the program was a seamless transition for him. Sliding into a community of like-minded people allowed him to flourish as a student, grow as an individual and make lifelong connections.
“Discovering these peers who had the same depth of curiosity as me, it was like coming to a family,” he explains. “It was the first time in my life that I didn’t feel like an outsider — I felt like I could show all of my dimensions. I was able to be my full self and develop my full self — that’s what is so compelling about the program.”
After graduating from Arts & Science with a focus in biochemistry, Pillay realized that he wasn’t interested in pursuing a life in a lab. Fortunately for him, happenstance swooped in again and nudged him onto his next path.
His roommate at the time had recently completed the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), and still had his study materials lying around the house. Pillay thought, “Why not?”, and dove right in. A few years later, he earned an MBA from McGill University.
Pillay had his sights set on an executive office at Exxon — a goal that he achieved in 1989, at their Imperial Oil headquarters in Toronto. But he wasn’t keen on becoming an oil industry tycoon. Moved by conversations he had with David Suzuki at McMaster about the limitless potential of Arts & Science students, he wanted to go into Exxon and subvert their practice for the better.
Pillay eventually discovered how difficult it was to shift a corporate culture that was oriented around extraction, so they eventually went their separate ways.
With some money in the bank, he stepped away from it all for a year. He road-tripped across North America, back-packed through Africa, and eventually returned to the world of work, first with the newly established Canadian branch of Doctors Without Borders, then as special projects director for Youth Services Canada with the federal government.
His work in these two roles connected him closely with First Nations communities around the country — something he describes as extremely fulfilling. In the mid-90s, he transplanted his life to the West Coast, taking on the role of Executive Director of the Rediscovery International Foundation, where his primary mission was to help establish working relationships with Indigenous communities throughout BC.
Feeling inspired by his work, Pillay returned to a childhood interest and began to create art. In his mid-30s, on a creative impulse, he attended a portfolio day at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver to show off his work.
Pillay would spend the next five years of his life studying at Emily Carr — even though he was significantly older than most of his classmates — and spent the two years following that at the University of Saskatchewan, where he earned an MFA in Visual and Media Arts.
Now standing at the intersection of business and art, Pillay’s qualifications allow him to live a fluid lifestyle.
“I consider myself an edge-dweller,” he says.
“I move between communities, and rarely stay for long. In First Nation culture, I suppose I would be considered coyote or raven — a trickster. I take information from one community or one discipline and bring it to another. I really believe that the transplanting of ideas is so important.”
This nomadic way of life eventually led him to Salt Spring Island, where he currently resides. He calls it his “little paradise” — and, there, he’s doing some of the most rewarding work of his career.
As Founding Partner and Managing Director of Humanitas Capital Management, which recently launched its “Smart Planet Fund,” Pillay is demonstrating how, when developed with a traditional Indigenous awareness of the world, technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are able to cultivate coherence between human well-being, ecological integrity, and economic prosperity.
“The Smart Planet Fund exists to invest in technologies that will enable humanity to adapt to the ever-increasing volatility of the environment, while preserving or deepening human dignity,” he explains.
For example, they’re currently investing in graphene, a crystalline allotrope of carbon, for its potential global carbon reduction properties. They’re also investing in First Nations technology, biomimicry, artificial intelligence, block chain, virtual reality, and more.
Reflecting on his career, Pillay understands that he has taken a very unique path. While he knows not everyone can drop what they’re doing to pursue a Fine Arts degree in their mid-30s, he does see great value in always chasing satisfaction — a message he hopes current students are receiving.
“I would tell them to find the silence within oneself, to understand the depth of one’s own being, and to work from within that place,” he says. “Be present in that place. Be inspired. Let the callings emerge, and then follow them without fear.”