Judy Zhu and James Thom

A man and woman sit on the grass smiling at two young children
Two Gustavson School of Business alumni, who met while at UVic, have created an award for students. Photo: Holly Restani

A family donation aims to support students with the mindset to succeed

Judy Zhu (BCom ’03) and James Thom (BCom ’03) teach their children very intentionally about giving back.

“We start by asking them to identify something that’s made a difference to their lives,” says Judy, “And then we explore together if there’s something we could do to help people in a similar way.”

This approach—one that begins with personal reflection—is what led Judy and James to donate generously to the University of Victoria to establish an award for undergraduate students in the business program. They took stock of the experiences and scaffolding that led to their own rise to success, then set about trying to create that for others.

After graduating from UVic, Judy and James both completed MBAs at Harvard Business School and now live in Colorado, where Judy is currently CEO of MoneyGirls and a member of The Fund Rockies and James is chief product officer at Vertafore. Despite their current physical distance from UVic, the institution remains meaningful to the couple. They have family in Victoria, they met at UVic during their undergrad, and they both value highly the formative training and exceptional experiences they received during that time.

Speaking of the couple’s decision to set up a named award, Judy says:

We knew we wanted to give back to UVic. But we also knew we wanted to do it tactically—in a way that allows us to see the value and impact each year.”

Risk-taking can be a privilege

Judy says she always been a risk-taker in her career. It’s a common mindset in the tech and entrepreneurial spheres in which she operates. “We like to tell people ‘Take a risk! Commit! Do it!’”, she says, “And while it’s 100% true that you can’t succeed if you don’t, for a lot of people risk-taking can be a barrier—especially when each failure has huge ramifications.”

Judy reflects that she always knew she had her parents, husband, or professional network as a safety net. “I recognize that all these things are complete privileges,” she says. That’s why the couple’s award will support a student who has an interest in pursuing entrepreneurship. They hope to provide an extra safety net (both financially and mentally) for that person to take risks.

Immigrant experience a north star

Judy and James were also keen that the award recipient should be either the first in their immediate family to attend university (reflecting James’ experience) or an immigrant (Judy moved to Canada with her family when she was 9). They hope this will allow them to connect to and empathize with each recipient’s journey—which is certainly the case with Ruhaan Nijhawan, the first recipient of the Judy Zhu and James Thom Business and Entrepreneurship Award.

Ruhaan’s letter of thanks resonated deeply with Judy. “One part that stood out to me was when he mentioned moving to Canada during high school…” she remembers, “How his first few terms were very difficult, but that he eventually made friends.” Judy could relate to how he was feeling, but she could also sense his ambition and drive to succeed despite that.

For folks that go through that, successfully, it’s like having a north star that drives you. I admire someone who can show that vulnerability, be cognizant of that discomfort, but still be so determined.”