Providing opportunities for women engineers

The 1989 Polytechnique Memorial Scholarships are the latest in a string of contributions to McGill’s Faculty of Engineering from a dedicated alumnus.

On December 6, 1989, Ian Van Cortlandt McLachlin, BEng’60, was relocating from Toronto to his native Montreal. Later that evening he heard the news about the massacre at École Polytechnique, which claimed the lives of 14 young women, most of whom were engineering students. The tragic events of that day would mark McLachlin for the next 30-plus years. In 2020, he established the 1989 Polytechnique Memorial Scholarships at McGill’s Faculty of Engineering, with the goal of supporting and promoting women in engineering.

“I graduated in 1960,” McLachlin explains. “There were virtually no women.” Indeed, the Faculty of Engineering’s Class of 1960 included just one female student in Engineering, and two in Architecture.

Ian Van Cortlandt McLachlinMuch has changed since 1960, but there are still many inequalities and barriers in Engineering and STEM fields to address. The 1989 Polytechnique Memorial Scholarships are awarded each year to 14 or more female undergraduate students, especially those involved in entrepreneurial activities at the McGill Engine. The centre stimulates and supports technologically based innovation and entrepreneurship at the University.

McLachlin intends for the scholarships to foster “the ability to be a free thinker. To encourage people – if you have an idea, don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams or to follow your ideas. People will say, ‘No one’s done this before.’ Well, that isn’t any reason why you shouldn’t go for it.”

Helping engineering students acquire entrepreneurial know-how and economic literacy has been close to McLachlin’s heart for several decades. In addition to his career in the investment banking industry and as an entrepreneur (he founded the first Canadian cellphone rental company in the 1980s), and his family life (he is the father of three daughters), McLachlin has been heavily involved with his alma mater. From 1992 to 2000, he taught as a faculty lecturer in the nascent Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies, as it was then called. In 1998, he established the Ian McLachlin Prizes for Entrepreneurship in Engineering, and also created the courses that would become the Minor in Technological Entrepreneurship for undergraduate students in Engineering.

“We introduced this minor to talk about marketing, about finance,” explains McLachlin, “That ended up with me giving a weekly tutorial on Fridays. I used to get 100 students on a Friday lunchtime, learning how to understand financial statements.”

Motivated by a deep love for the city of his birth and its rich cultural diversity, McLachlin’s goals for the 1989 Polytechnique Memorial Scholarships include helping to bridge the historic “two solitudes” between anglophones and francophones. Educating and supporting more women in engineering is a larger societal problem that needs institutions such as McGill and Université de Montréal to work together on, collaborating beyond linguistic barriers. “When I graduated, there were very few francophones in the Faculty,” says McLachlin, who grew up near the Université de Montreal campus and its engineering school, École Polytechnique de Montréal (now called Polytechnique Montréal). He sees the scholarships as an opportunity to strengthen the ties between the two universities.

McLachlin’s generous contribution to set up the memorial scholarships is another example of his deep commitment to creating opportunities for McGill Engineering students, fostering their entrepreneurial education – and building bridges along the way.

Pictured above: Top row (l to r): Hélène Colgan, Anne-Marie Lemay, Barbara Daigneault, Nathalie Croteau and Maryse Laganière. Middle row (l to r): Sonia Pelletier, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, Maryse Leclair and Annie St-Arneault, Bottom row (l to r): Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Annie Turcotte, Geneviève Bergeron and Michèle Richard.

This article was originally published on the McGill Giving site.

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