Interview with Dr. Gina Cody: Former CEO & Namesake of Concordia’s Faculty of Engineering
Edited by: Rivkah Groszman
Name: Gina Cody Degrees: Ph.D. – Building Engineering, Master’s Degree – Engineering, Bachelor’s Degree – Structural Engineering Organization: National Engineering Firm
Role: Corporate Director & Retired Engineer, CEO and Owner
Dr. Gina Cody is a Canadian-Iranian engineer and business leader. She completed her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Building Engineering at Concordia University. Dr. Cody started her career as a tower crane inspector and rose within the ranks until she became the company’s CEO and principal shareholder. In 2018, Concordia University renamed its faculty of engineering and computer science after Dr. Cody, making it the first university engineering and computer science faculty in Canada and among the first globally to be named after a woman. Dr. Cody remains involved within the Concordia community as Co-Chair of the Campaign for Concordia, which aims to cement Concordia as Canada’s next-generation university.
Many Concordia students know your name because Concordia’s engineering and computer science faculty is named after you. Some know you as an accomplished engineer and business leader. Can you please introduce yourself to those who only know the name and not the person?
I’m just a retired engineer. I’m from Iran and came to Canada over 40 years ago. I made my life here and couldn’t be happier.
You completed your master's degree in engineering in 1981 at Concordia University and a Ph.D. in building engineering in 1989, becoming the first female Concordia student to receive this honour. Can you please tell us about your experience studying at Concordia?
I came to Canada in 1979, during a grassroots revolution that disturbed every component of life in Iran. I finished my bachelor’s degree at the beginning of the revolution, just before things escalated. The situation was very unstable and I had always wanted to get my Ph.D. and better my life as a woman. My family pushed my sister and me to educate ourselves. Women did not have much independence in most parts of the world at that time; the only way to gain independence was through education. So, I came to Canada with $2,000 in my pocket and my brother arranged a meeting for me with Cedric Marsh, who was a Concordia engineering professor at the time. He offered me a scholarship, and I was overjoyed and jumped at the opportunity. I enrolled in the university that morning and started working in the engineering laboratory that afternoon. Concordia created a very smooth transition for me. It was an amazing journey.
To what do you attribute your success?
A lot of hard work. Hard work and perseverance are some of the most important qualities for any young person who wants to succeed in the workplace. You also have to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Take nothing for granted. Young people often look for brighter things when there is something amazing right in front of them, which may cause them to miss that opportunity. I always cherished every opportunity presented to me and did my best with it. Education was also a very big factor in my success. It’s the most important foundation for everyone because it will give you an advantage. Education is a big equalizer, no matter your ethnicity. When you have a degree in your hand, you are technically equal to every other graduate. There is racism, but education gives you the ammunition to fight for your existence and success.
What are some of the challenges you faced as a woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)?
My biggest challenge was being the only woman in the room. In these situations, you really feel as though you’re under a microscope. It pressures you to be a good person, to do things right, to avoid making mistakes, and to work harder. Being the only woman in the room also makes people remember you, for both your successes and mistakes. This brought me a sense of loneliness at times, but I took advantage of my situation and used the attention I got to let people know that I was here to stay.
You’ve been extremely successful, but you continue to be involved in the Concordia community and to give back. Why do you feel this is important for you as a business leader?
I strongly believe that you need to remember your roots when you leave university. For me, it was not a choice but rather an obligation to give back to Concordia, because the university gave me the opportunity to receive higher education. Concordia provided me with all the tools and financial support I needed to succeed. I took this for granted while I was young, but once I was older, I reflected upon my experience and realized how big a role Concordia played in my success. Concordia, to me, is an institution that cares for everyone. I never felt racism or prejudice in university, and that equality should be cherished. So I want Concordia to succeed, and I want more students to graduate from university and go on to make the world a better place. We have to constantly fight for a better world and use our success to create success for others. I really want the youth to get involved in the Concordia community and stay connected, not to leave and become complacent.
You went from working as a crane inspector at CCI to later becoming the president. What was this journey like?
While I was writing my Ph.D. thesis, I was also inspecting tower cranes during Toronto’s construction boom and was the only woman doing these inspections. I worked all over the city and was inspecting about 75% of all construction cranes in Toronto, so many people in the industry began to know who I was. I was expected to take the minutes at meetings because I was the only woman there. I volunteered to write the agenda, and soon after I was chairing the meetings; these meetings became my meetings. I took advantage of gender inequality in that way. I was dedicated and a hard worker, and gradually rose in the ranks.
How important is business in engineering? Do you think that pursuing a business degree after studying engineering would have benefited your career?
I’m not sure because hindsight is 20/20. I think it’s very important for engineers to be exposed to business education, but I also know that my street smarts helped me grow. I think my success came partially from being a good person, and partially from my PhD because it made people treat me with respect. In my opinion, many aspects of business, besides the very technical areas, are common sense. You always need to be ahead of the curve to succeed in business and recognize how education and technology can cut costs. You need to look for ways to optimize the situation to create success for yourself. I think that, in engineering, it’s okay to simply be mindful of the business side of things.
Many JMSB students aspire to also become presidents of companies. What advice would you give to them, especially to students of colour and women?
Pursue knowledge. That’s my #1 tip for success. Secondly, be a good listener—you learn so much by simply listening. We often tend to do most of the speaking because we want to bring our vision and views to the table, but by doing so we miss out on insights from our colleagues. Leave your ego at the door and be humble. Be a team member—when talking about my company’s successes, I always use the word “we”. You also need to develop your soft skills. Of course, hard work, perseverance, and knowledge are pivotal, but soft aspects like teamwork, empathy, honesty, and kindness will help you reach a higher level. You’ll be amazed at how much support people will give you. Your business partners will respect you for these soft skills, especially honesty. It’s also important to be honest with yourself so that you do the right thing.
For people of colour, immigrants, and women, you need to believe in yourself and what you do. Stick to your guns and don’t give up, but do so in a kind and humble way, and you’ll get there. Businesses these days notice those who are delivering, so you don’t need to prove yourself to others. If they’re the right people, they’ll see it. If they don’t, then move on to better things.
Why did you decide to sell CCI and retire?
I believe there are three chapters of life. The first is our childhood, where our parents and teachers take care of us and help us become who we are. The second chapter is the “me” chapter—It’s all about our professional success, family, and material possessions. And the third stage is giving back. Many of us end life during our second chapter and never reach the third, but I don’t believe that’s right. In this stage of my life, I have the energy and endurance to fight for what’s right and create a better world for those who come after me. The road was paved for me by my predecessors, and it’s my responsibility to do the same for my successors. Even if I can’t pave the whole road, I hope to be able to create a little sidewalk! So far, the third chapter has been the best chapter of my life.
How is life after CCI? What are you up to now?
I chair the Gina Cody School Advisory Board and I’m working hard to make the Campaign for Concordia a success. The campaign isn’t only about raising funds—it’s also about giving back and making the world a better place using the strength of our alumni community. There’s so much we can do through Concordia, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to accomplish even bigger things, and to do this we need everyone’s help. As well, I’m part of Concordia’s board of governors. We’re hoping to take Concordia to the next level, not only as an educational institution but as one that improves society as a whole. I also serve as a trustee for two public companies listed on the TSX.
How do you feel our world has changed due to the pandemic?
I believe that, in the future, we’ll be separating our immediate history into two periods: “before COVID” and “after COVID”. Right now, we’re in uncharted waters and we don’t know when we’ll get to the “after”. For the first time in our history, we’ve begun to understand how important the cleaner is, how important the truck driver is. We have to realize that we must respect each other because of our equality and shared humanity. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as any better or any worse than anyone else.
What advice do you have for students who are facing the new reality of working and learning during a pandemic?
When it comes to professional success in the future, I believe education will help a lot. Those in fields that create cutting-edge technology will definitely find work. Unfortunately, there will be job shortages in some industries, and that’s where continuing education becomes extremely important. I think universities should offer a wider range of courses to help society retrain itself to prepare for the future. For those graduating now, just be patient. You may experience a few months of hardship, but being dedicated and having a good education will ensure your future is bright.