Devon Haye (BCom’20) believed that a business can do much more than make money - it can be a powerful force for social good. He refined this vision during his studies for a Bachelor of Commerce at Desautels, and brought it with him during an internship in South Africa and a student exchange at the National University of Singapore. But his strong sense of social justice had its roots in two tiny First Nations communities.
Devon spent some of his childhood in God’s Lake Narrows and Pukatawagan, both isolated communities in northern Manitoba where his father was posted with the RCMP. Even as a first-grader, he was aware of the persistent inequities the communities faced – and he wanted to fix them. Once, after winning a bicycle as a reward for high academic achievement, Devon gave it back. He knew that his family could buy him a new bike if he needed one, and that others could not.
Devon moved to Ottawa the following year, but the impact of his time in God’s Lake Narrows stayed with him during his school years, and as his high school graduation gift, he asked to return. He made the trip in the spring after his first year at Desautels, and those persistent inequities? Well, many of them persisted. But Devon was developing a vision to do something about it. He believed that businesses driven by social impact could achieve positive change, and that entrepreneurs could help alleviate problems like long-term boil water advisories and sky-high produce costs. It was only one part of a year that helped crystallize his goals.
Like most first-year students, Devon was still sorting out his plans for the future when he arrived at Desautels. He had a classic high achiever’s resume – top grades and academic medals, co-president of his high school, and even started a successful web design company that connected small businesses and talented students with in-demand tech skills. At the time, he was toying with the idea of pursuing a lucrative career in corporate law, but as he connected with professors and fellow students, it reinforced that social impact would be at the centre of his path.
“The relationships that Devon built at McGill were very important in shaping his focus on social impact and social responsibility,” says Richard Haye, Devon’s father.
“It was already present in high school, but the university experience drew together all of the pieces, which is exactly what a university setting is supposed to do.”
In 2018, Devon travelled to South Africa for an internship with I’m in, a start-up accelerator in Johannesburg that provides business support to high growth tech start-ups. He wanted to empower black entrepreneurs who had great ideas and a strong work ethic, but had been historically disenfranchised by the lingering effects of Apartheid, and assist them in navigating the microfinance loan process.
But while he was in South Africa, Devon began to experience symptoms from a rare and aggressive form of lymphatic cancer. He returned to Canada to obtain a diagnosis, and began treatment at The Ottawa Hospital. In spite of the difficult circumstances, he remained determined. Devon continued to study for his Bachelor of Commerce degree, and reached out to Desautels’ career office to find ways to continue to self-improve. And even over the protestations of his father and his mother Leslie – who wanted him to take time to rest - he began interviewing for summer jobs in Toronto.
Devon wore his glasses during virtual interviews to conceal that his eyebrows had been lost to chemotherapy – Clark Kent-style. It worked. That summer, with his cancer in remission, Devon worked as an analyst intern with Social Venture Connexion (SVX) at the MaRS Discovery District, a platform that provides venture capital services to social impact entrepreneurs. He even co-authored the organization’s Buying With Impact Social Enterprise Procurement Playbook, which helps advanced education institutions amplify the social impact of their purchasing decisions.
Devon made friends easily, and took pride in nurturing those friendships through kind gestures. But that summer, it was his friends who were there for him.
“Devon gave me a call one day, and asked if I could help him find an apartment in Toronto,” says Dan McInnis, who was once Devon’s high school co-president and is now an engineer with Logitech in Ireland.
“My first instinct was like, ‘yeah, sure,’ but then it clicked that he had been in the hospital for months. Most people would take it slow at that point, but Devon was always moving at 100 miles an hour.”
His McGill friends were there for him too.
“Devon didn't tell anyone at MaRS that he had just gotten out of the hospital, and he asked me not to say anything either,” says Sophie Belec, a 2019 BCom graduate who is now a senior associate at MaRS.
“I remember one Slack message where he asked me to bring a phone charger to the hospital. He hadn’t told his manager he was gone, and continued working from his phone. He didn’t want to be labelled, or for expectations to change because he was sick.”
Devon and his friends made memories that summer, and even celebrated in the streets until 5 am when his Raptors won the NBA championship. He returned to McGill in the fall for his final year, and continued to excel by earning the Best Speaker Award at the 2019 Lazaridis International Business Case Conference, an annual competition that brings together students from twelve leading universities.
Even during remission, Devon had never felt 100 per cent, but toward the end of the semester, his worst fear was confirmed. The cancer had come back. Devon returned to Ottawa for treatment, but continued to study remotely, and took on a virtual internship with the hydroponic fresh produce company The Growcer. There, he developed a business plan for using the company’s shipping container farms in remote communities like God’s Lake Narrows.
Devon wrote his final exam from a hospital bed that December, and passed away in July 2020. His degree was conferred posthumously by a representative of the Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management, who travelled to Ottawa to present it to Devon’s family, in front of his friends. His father was touched by the gesture - and by the Desautels’ decision to fly its flag at half-mast - and he began contemplating ways to keep Devon’s legacy alive.
In his memory, Devon’s family is funding The Devon Anthony Haye Social Impact Scholarship, which will be awarded annually to a Bachelor of Commerce student on the basis of academic merit, demonstrated strong leadership qualities, and a drive to make this world better. Someone, in other words, who is a little like Devon.
Its first recipient is Mariam Sabbah, an Integrated Management Student Fellow at Desautels, and the President of the Art of Wellness, a group dedicated to offering sustainable and accessible ways for the McGill community to practice mental wellness.
“This scholarship is about what you have done. However, it is also about what you intend to do. Devon wanted to leave every place that he went better than it was when he arrived,” says Richard.
“And if he is not here, the next best thing is for him to continue to make a mark. If he can continue to do what he had always done - to influence in a positive way - then the end result is the same. One thing about Devon is that he always had a lot of good things happening, but you would never hear it directly from him. He liked to be behind the scenes, and was never a person who sought accolades. In that way, this scholarship is a lot like him. It will help influence actions that come later on, because the people who earn it will continue in a similar vein to what Devon had started. It plants a seed, and in 30, or 40, or 50 years, that seed will become its own tree.”
Special thanks to all who provided background for this story: Richard Haye, Leslie Haye, Jaden Haye, Dan McInnis, Antonio Micucci, Jordan Itzkovitz, Sophie Belec, Max Levine, Hannah Mirsky, Syd Palter, Shira Wachtel, Peg Brunelle, and Angela Kempf.
Article written by Ty Burke