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Life

From Financial Advisor to Occupier

Suresh Fernando left his high-rolling finance job to join the revolution. As told to Colleen Kimmett.

By Suresh Fernando 26 May 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Suresh Fernando is an activist based in Vancouver. Colleen Kimmett is a contributing editor at The Tyee.

[Editor's note: This is the story of Suresh Fernando's jarring move from the dog-eat-dog world of finance to Occupy's mediation models. His involvement in Occupy Vancouver continues. Here, he tells Tyee contributing editor Colleen Kimmett his story.]

I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka. When I was about one my family moved to Oxford, England because my dad did his PhD at Oxford. Then, when I was five, my dad got a job at UBC and I've lived here in Vancouver ever since.

I wanted to be a doctor for a while, because of a formative handicap I've had to deal with both physically and emotionally. At various times in my life I've had to be in hospital for surgery, for my leg. My left leg is weaker than my right leg and when I was a little kid I had to be in traction. It's a congenital defect. When I was 10 years old they amputated part of my foot so it was possible to put a prosthetic all the way up my leg. It's strong enough for me to run around now.

After high school I went to McGill and I did a bachelor's degree in physics. I came back and I didn't really know what I was going to do. I ended up traveling for a bit. Then I got a job at a collection agency. I worked in the collection industry for about four years with a company called Creditel.

It was a commercial credit agency, which means that we worked for companies that were owed money by other companies; businesses that defaulted. The collection industry is highly competitive, which suited me well. You sit in your cubicle, and as you get commissions you post them, so you're literally competing in real time during the day. You know how well everyone is doing each day. It's competitive, and after a while, you're an asshole.

Condos and beamers

The end of the road for me was when I phoned this woman who was running a bookstore on Denman. We sent in the bailiff while she was crying on the phone as they took her stuff out. Obviously, we were completely within our rights, since she owed a lot of money and we had a judgment against her, but it was heartbreaking and I didn't want to do that anymore.

But it did train me. I started looking into the finance industry, brokerage and all of that. I got a job with ScotiaMcLeod when I was 28. I started just talking to people in the industry and then doing some prerequisite courses, and it became apparent to me that this felt right, this is what I needed to do. It was really hard to get in. What ended up happening was that I said, "Oh, I'll just come work for you for free."

I just went in there and starting setting up meetings. Of course if you're a salesperson and someone is going to line up meetings for you, you're not going to complain. I was so efficient at it that they hired me very shortly thereafter, as an investment advisor. Technically you're managing personal financial services. Really what you're doing is selling financial products. You're selling mutual funds, stocks and bonds.

There's a thing called DAPS in phone sales; it stands for dials, appointments, presentations, sales. It's numerical, right? After a while you know that after you make X amount of calls you're going to make so much money. It's mathematical. You can figure out your own numbers. That whole quantitative model appealed to me. I just kept pushing myself and pushing myself, and did really well.

I took myself off salary after about six months because I could make so much more on commission. I wanted to be able to push as hard as possible. I went crazy. I worked for the first 47 days that I was there, including Saturdays and Sundays. I grew my business every year that I was at ScotiaMcLeod and ended up managing about $25 million. I was doing $250,000 to $300,000 gross commission in the last couple of years, which is a real amount of money. It's hard to leave that game. All of a sudden I own a condo, I'm driving a beamer, and I had nothing four years ago. It's just the trap that everyone falls into.

There were people making huge amounts of money. Sitting in cubicles, you were ostracized making $150,000 a year, but in the real world you were actually doing okay. In that business, if you weren't making more than $150,000 a year after three years, then you were fired.

Bad deal

But I could see that it was warped, even at that time. After a few years, I started doing my CFA -- chartered financial designation -- during which I started to understand the theory of finance. It became apparent to me that the financial services industry is predicated on the ignorance of the general public because it's never been proven that anyone can actually beat the market. You can't actually in good faith represent that you could do any better than index. It's all a mug's game. And it's ripe with conflict. I started to get more and more uncomfortable.

You say, "Sell that mutual fund and buy that mutual fund!" You can't actually prove that either of those are going to do anything. But I'd still make a nice five per cent or something ridiculous on your $50,000 transaction and that adds up to quite a bit.

So there are days when it's 6:45 in the morning and you've made $4,000 or something. It's fun and that's really cool and there's all this money rolling in, but there's something false. I came to realize I'm not adding anything of value -- I'm just pushing paper.

I was there from '94 to 2000. This was also during the NASDAQ dot-com boom. I did get caught up in the hype, trying to figure out why and what's going on. A bunch of my clients made lots of money, great, but more importantly I got really interested in the Internet and technology. I started going down to Silicon Valley, and as I got increasingly more disenchanted talking to the average citizen abut their RRSPs, I got more interested in institutional clients. I also started to get more interested in venture capital. I ended up selling my practice and started a company called Catalyst Capital Partners, which was basically just me doing deals with various people.

I had an office downtown at the Marine building, I had a couple people working for me full time for a period. I ran that for about five years. I did a lot of consulting with early stage technology companies; business planning and strategic analysis. I got paid to think through business problems and to conceptualize and develop strategy, which is very useful in an early stage concept development context, where you're trying to crystallize ideas. I felt like I couldn't add value at predicting the stock market, but I could add value if there were five people trying to figure out what to do.

I'm an entrepreneur; I always work on nascent early stage projects. It's my model; just get things up and running, and then I get bored and get to do something else.

Well, I ran into a problem on a deal, with friends, that ended up losing a quarter million bucks, which is not a huge amount in the investment scheme of things. But, you know, $20,000 from one friend... and it all went to zero. It really hit me hard. When you analyze a deal you do due diligence, and I felt like I did as much as I could have done. The whole thing just blew up.

Occupied

It made me question what I was doing. So I took a month off, and it turned into six months. I was just totally confused. I took a really extended break where I didn't talk to my friends or family.

I got tuned into Carlos Castaneda. I read all 13 of his books in a month and wrote 200 pages of philosophy.

That propelled me to go back to university, to study philosophy at the Masters level at SFU. During that period, I set up the climate change action group and got involved in climate action (which still continues to this day). It was my first exposure to activism that was potentially a career thing.

Then I left university since I couldn't sit around reading and writing all day... but what to do?

There's a space that's called social business; social finance, which is the infrastructure that is required to build organizations that deliver both financial and social value. It seemed natural that I should look into it, and so I did.

I noticed that computers were getting more powerful, the price of Internet access was dropping, and broadband penetration rates were increasing. I knew at the end of the day we were going to live in this highly networked world with power at the edge of the network.

I also saw that, because of all these social forces that were converging -- alienation and discontent in western culture, climate change, the discourse around species extinction risk, terrorism, etc., and all this capacity to communicate on the Internet -- I felt like the revolution was imminent.

When Occupy came along, it was no big shock. I knew and continue to know that this is not some short-term phenomenon. It's a reflection of something much, much deeper, and if you think it's going to reveal itself in six months, then you're a little naïve about social transformation. It doesn't necessarily happen quite that quickly.

There were 5,000 people there [Occupy Vancouver], and a lot of chaos, and I was one of the people on stage. I convened the first general assembly committee meeting to see what to do next.

You get a bunch of random strangers who are politicized but are also deeply frustrated and angry and economically disadvantaged and they're all either ideologically onside that the world needs to change or they're victims of the world, right?

So we're all part of that change process in different ways. We were jammed together and a lot of work got done, actions were taken. We did some economic analysis -- more than a million bucks worth of services came out of Occupy Vancouver for free; and a lot of resources came in.

Then of course it got dispersed. What's happened over the course of the last six months is that certain relationships have been deepened. People have found out who they're most connected to, who they have an affinity with and whom they're aligned with politically. As much as that, differences have emerged.

Unifier

There has been a lot of conflict and power struggles and ego that we're trying to contend with. One of the things that we learned is that in an environment where you welcome everybody... inclusiveness is a beautiful thing, but it's not necessarily functionally maximally efficient. Some people have mental health issues or are disruptors or police agents or who knows what. You can't work with everyone.

As precipitated by an alleged sexual harassment incident within the community, we realized the insufficiency of our own mechanisms and processes to contend with these things. Right now we're in the process of seeking out very experienced people from all over to try to develop some mechanisms to find out what transgressive behaviours are, and figure out how to contend with them as a community without calling the cops. We are trying to figure out how to effectively develop and manage boundaries.

One of the things we need to embed in our new models is a deeper understanding of systemic oppression and structural imbalance.

Like our general assembly process, for example. It worked for me because I'm a guy and I can yell pretty loud and I'm aggressive and I can cut people off. The GA worked for aggressive men. A lot of mediation models assume a symmetric balance of power, but the perspective that takes systemic oppression into consideration -- and this is something I'm new to -- is that we need to look at the frame differently.

Phase two of Occupy is going to involve a discourse that's more broadly about inequality; not just economic inequality, but systemic inequality more generally. Because this issue is going on at virtually all Occupys, and that's just a fact.

I don't know what Occupy Vancouver is, exactly, because we don't at this point have a functional general assembly. There is no centre. That said, a lot of stuff that's happened -- robocall rallies, for example -- have involved Occupy people but haven't been Occupy branded.

There are groups that meet regularly, like the Free Market. I'm also part of the environmental justice group, which is really active. We have mission statements and framework documents and agendas and meetings and a bunch of activity on the go.

Having the background that I did has helped me on many levels. My ability to operate at the institutional level is massively enhanced by having been that person before. I know how to speak to business people, because I was one of those people. I can speak that language and understand where they're coming from.

I'm planning to put on a summit on inequality, which will be a multi-stakeholder event. The idea is to come out the other side of it with actionable campaigns in mind. (We are putting the team together to make this happen and people should contact me if they are interested!)

Our role, with the environmental justice workgroup, is not to reinvent Greenpeace or the Wilderness Committee or what other groups are doing. Our role is to be the unifier. There's not enough cross-pollination with the environmental groups, with labour, seniors, youth, with the city. Everything is silo'ed, and this should not be the case.

End game

What is the end game? Why bother? The reason is that we represent the 99 per cent, which are the people that don't have the money and therefore are powerless. The money buys you the police, it buys you the ability to co-opt the political process and it buys you media space to control messaging.

If you'd asked me a year ago whether the media is biased, I would have said, well yeah, of course it's biased. But the extent to which the messaging is controlled is something we learned first hand. The media generates rhetoric and hyperbole in support of existing power structures.

The strength that the 99 per cent have is numbers. Our ability to effect change is a direct function of our ability to align our energy in specific actions.

A hundred people protesting standing on a corner is not nearly as effective as thousands and thousands of people. The end game is harnessing the power of the people, and it's in alignment, it's in coordination. I'm talking about having the ability to totally coordinate activity in order to elect the Green Party, or whatever.

Like the case of the Quebec protests. The Charest government will probably come down because of these 200,000 kids in the street.

Mass mobilization is one thing. The other is just coordinated messaging -- to get everybody onside in opposition to all the Harper nonsense, for example. It's ridiculous, some of the stuff that's going on. We need deeper coordination amongst environmental and labour groups. We need to stand together -- physically and virtually, but physically as much as possible.

There's a strong sense that revolution is necessary. But revolution in the Western Hemisphere is not going to be of the same form as revolution, I don't think, in Tahrir Square or other parts of the world where you're literally trying to claim the allegiance of the military. It's not going to be violent confrontation.

The revolution here is going to involve systematically de-legitimizing institutions and the leaders of those institutions.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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