Skip to content

Indira Samarasekera on Building a Career of Firsts

Luck didn’t land Indira Samarasekera a successful career. It was hard work, pursuing her passions, and taking strategic risks that earned her multiple career accolades.

By Shelley White

As a graduate student at the University of California studying engineering in the 1970s, Indira Samarasekera was sometimes underestimated by her predominantly male peers.

“I’d go to conferences, and people would always assume that I was somebody’s wife,” she says.

Instead of getting offended, Indira (who was a Fulbright scholar at the time) would simply inform the misguided individuals that they were wrong and that she was a graduate student just like them.

“It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, ‘Nobody can make you feel inferior unless you give them consent,’” says Indira. “And so I never felt that I was going to allow these kinds of comments to diminish my sense of the opportunity and what was possible.”

In the years that followed, that steely resolve would lead to many accomplishments and the pinnacle of her profession. Indira was the first female President of the University of Alberta (U of A), serving two terms from 2005-2015. She received the Order of Canada in 2002 for outstanding contributions to steel process engineering. Now, she’s currently a Corporate Director and Senior Advisor for Bennett Jones LLP and serves on the Board of Directors of Scotiabank.

Growing up in Sri Lanka as the eldest of four children, Indira says she never felt any restrictions when it came to pursuing her career of choice.

“My parents said to me, ‘you must do what you’re best at,’ and I was very good at math and physics,” she says. “I remember independently saying ‘I’m going to be an engineer.’ I have no idea why or where it came from, but I had a sense that you could do things that made life better for people, invent things.”

It was only when she started pursuing her bachelor of science in mechanical engineering at the University of Sri Lanka that Indira realized there weren’t a lot of women in her field of study. Upon graduation in 1974, she became the first female mechanical engineer in her home country; she then decided to continue her studies across the ocean.

“Because we had been a British colony, there was a natural tendency for most young people to go to the U.K. to study, but my father was a very visionary kind of guy, he said, ‘Look, the future is North America,” says Indira. “He was a big fan of [Pierre] Trudeau and he said ‘Oh, Canada’s a great country, there’s lots of space, you should go there.’ ”

Indira and her husband, a fellow engineer, ended up in California first. The Fulbright scholarship gave Indira the opportunity to study in the U.S., so she did her master’s at the University of California. Then opportunity knocked over lunch with a family friend who offered Indira’s husband a job in Vancouver.

“There’s no such thing as a balance, but it was about finding that equilibrium—some days your family demands more time and then other days your job demands more time.”

“I’d never heard of Vancouver, but it was one of those things you do when you’re young, you just take a leap,” she says. “Somebody’s offering you a job and it sounds interesting, so we came up and we liked the place and the rest is history.”

Indira did her PhD at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and was subsequently hired on, becoming only the second woman appointed to the Faculty of Engineering.

Her career was blossoming, though her life was not without challenges. Indira and her husband divorced when their two children were seven and three.

“The juggling of family life and the demands of work were very difficult,” she says. “There’s no such thing as a balance, but it was about finding that equilibrium—some days your family demands more time and then other days your job demands more time. How do you manage everything so that you are available to both sides of your life without having everything fall apart around you?”

“But once the kids were past teenagers and were in university, life became a lot easier and I was able to take on more responsibility without some of the pressures I had when they were growing up.”

As UBC’s Vice President of Research, Indira was able to more than double the university’s research funding from government, private donors and industry sources. When she became President of U of A in 2005, Indira became the first female president of any university in Alberta, but she says she felt more of a sense of accomplishment at having reached that level as a South Asian.

Related: The three key practises for an inclusive work culture 

“It was not so much what I had done, but what a great country Canada was that I had been able to,” she says. “There were no barriers.”

Now, she brings her expertise to a number of groups and organizations, including the Rideau Hall Foundation, the Asia Pacific Foundation and the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics. Indira says her role on the Board of directors of Scotiabank has been a rewarding and intellectually stimulating experience.

“The complexity fascinates me. I love learning,” she says. “I had to learn a lot to understand the business and then to make a contribution at the board level, and the kinds of people you meet on a bank board are not the people I have met most of my life. I’ve been in academia, I tend to meet academics, and so this kind of work has broadened my horizons.”

Despite her many responsibilities, Indira finds time for travel, gardening, and spending time with her children. She says they are her greatest accomplishment.“I’m just so proud of having been able to raise two children who have been successful in their own life,” she says. “They’re both now in their 30s, having children of their own.”

Her career advice to women is to understand their talents and pursue opportunities without fear.

“It’s about being able to be flexible and say, ‘I’ve chosen this job, I’ve been working in it for five years, but I no longer enjoy it, I need to find something else to do.’ Be open to taking risks and managing change in your life as opposed to being fearful of change.”

In the midst of our busy lives though, it’s important to remember to nourish your emotional and spiritual sides too, Indira adds.

“We all, as human beings, all need some opportunity for recovery, for reflection, for renewal.”