I knew John Evans only for a short period of time and met him only twice. Nonetheless, he played a pivotal role in my life, because it was his vision and support that brought me here to Canada and to MaRS.
For John, MaRS was always about more than simply helping startups. He considered MaRS a place of convergence. In many different ways, MaRS works to connect business, science and government. In the midst of that connection, John imagined a lab that would help tackle Canada’s toughest challenges, those that required multiple stakeholders to work and innovate together. His vision became MaRS Solutions Lab.
In this lab, John envisioned young people from various disciplines working together, with access to policy-makers and decision-makers from all sectors. The lab would also build capacity for creating change, both inside and outside of MaRS, because leadership—in his vision—meant enabling others to grow. Thus, the lab would help MaRS do its most challenging work. To make his vision happen, John’s family donated $10 million in his name for an endowment to help run MaRS Solutions Lab.
When I was asked to build and lead the lab, I felt honoured and excited. However, this extraordinary man and his vision also intrigued me. The first time that I met John he walked through the door of MaRS totally unexpected and unannounced. He had simply decided to pay MaRS a visit, to see how things were going. Five feet behind him was a wheelchair, but he insisted that he walk into the building he had helped to create. Next to him was his wife, Gay, who was beaming with joy.
Their daughter Gill introduced us, and we chatted for some minutes. I thanked John for his support and told him about what we were doing at MaRS Solutions Lab. I was slightly nervous, hoping that what I was describing was what he’d had in mind when he dreamed up the idea for the lab. I shared some of our work on changing the food system and developing new solutions for youth employment, and his eyes quickly lit up. He began offering advice and mentioning people who should be involved in our projects.
At the end of our discussion, John took both my hands, shook them and looked me straight in the eye. “Keep sharp. This is important work you are doing,” he said, and off he went.
My next meeting with John was at his home. Ilse Treurnicht and I paid him a visit to update him on MaRS Solutions Lab. What was intended to be a brief hour became an inspiring morning. John sat at the head of the table, in his wheelchair this time, with a few of his family members around the table: Gay, Mark, Sarah and Gill. I presented our strategy for MaRS Solutions Lab and described what we were working on. We had a lively conversation about ways to make change for a better Canada. It was definitely one of the smartest discussions I’ve had—with some razor-sharp questions and advice—but, at the same time, it was a very warm conversation that left me feeling that John and his family had confidence in me and the lab.
John did not say much, as his health was making him frail, but he listened carefully. He was sitting right in front of me and from time to time during the conversation I saw his eyes light up. When the meeting was over, he insisted on walking me to the door. Despite mild calls for caution, he got up and we walked to the hallway together. Arm in arm, he thanked me. I replied that his thanks were not necessary and that I should be the one thanking him. After all, without his dream and his support, MaRS Solutions Lab would not exist and I would not be there. But John shook his head and repeated, “No, I should thank you.” And off I went.
I regret that I will not be able to spend more time working with John. It surely would have been an inspirational experience and I know he would have been a great help. Luckily, John’s children have stepped in to help us with our work. Now, more than ever, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to make MaRS Solutions Lab succeed—to help fulfil John’s dream and keep his legacy alive. Not for our benefit, but for a better future for Canada. That was the focus John had in mind.
John has left us. I imagine he walked when he went: upright and determined, toward a better future.
Joeri van den Steenhoven
Joeri was VP of Systems Innovation and the Director of the MaRS Solutions Lab, a social innovation lab that aims to improve the lives of citizens and strengthen the resilience of communities in Canada. Before joining MaRS, he was the co-founder and CEO of Knowledgeland, one of the leading change labs in the Netherlands and Europe. He also worked as a director at the Young Foundation in the UK. See more…