SaskPower’s new president and CEO talks to Degrees about the power of community and local connection
When SaskPower welcomed Rupen Pandya BA'91, MA'99 last June as their new president and CEO, they knew they were getting a community-minded, team player with deep local roots. Degrees magazine posed five questions to the U of R alumnus about what excites him about his new job, the importance of having a local perspective, and the value of community
It’s an interesting time to be involved with the energy sector. What drew you to the job?
First of all, let me say how honoured I am to serve as president and CEO of SaskPower. This is a really exciting time to be in the energy sector. There’s a dramatic energy transition underway that is going to have profound implications – not only for the corporation, but for how power is produced in the province. At the same time, we’re seeing increasing demand for more energy options from our residential as well as industrial customers.
It’s such a critical and challenging public policy change in the province right now, and that was one of my considerations when I was thinking about my career. I came from a more than 25-year career in provincial public service. I was a former provincial Deputy Minister of Finance and Secretary of the Treasury Board. In that role, you get to see all of the work of government going through your office because of the nature of the position. There are tremendous opportunities to make sure the “planes land” if you will – to make sure we are creating good public policy. What’s taking place on the power front right now will have significant implications for economic growth in Saskatchewan going forward.
SaskPower has built its existing generation transmission over a period spanning nearly a century. The energy transition underway will require substantial changes to our system in a very short order of time, compared to the history of the corporation. Whether it’s 2030 or 2035 or 2050, those dates are just around the corner and there’s a significant amount of work to do.
It’s a really exciting time to be involved in the sector, with lots of innovation and opportunity for rethinking the organization as we continue to serve the people of the province with reliable, sustainable, cost-effective power.
What do you think are the characteristics that make a good leader, and what do you feel you bring to your leadership role, personally?
I think great communication skills, great values, being empathetic, having integrity, transparency, trust, and being creative – those are all cornerstone qualities of leadership. I like to think of myself as a values-based leader. I fundamentally believe that the “what” of our work is important – in this case, in an energy transition to net-zero electricity. But what is equally important is how we do our work. That has to be with integrity, transparency, and empathy.
I’ve been lucky throughout my career. I’ve been drawn to really challenging opportunities where I feel I can make a difference. Empowering teams so they can be creative and collaborative and outcomes-oriented is foundational to success in any organization.
How do you feel your time at the University of Regina prepared you for your professional life?
I would say it was foundational to my professional accomplishments. The university experience and quality of education were outstanding. In terms of the skills I learned and the mentorship, the close relationships I built with professors across multiple faculties – skills like leadership, teamwork, critical thinking, the coaching and mentoring that I received from not only professors, but my colleagues who were studying alongside me were really profound in shaping who I am.
My brothers and sisters were all first generation to the university system, and something that my mother and father impressed upon us was that we made sure we were maximizing all the opportunities that were available to us. My dad used to say “it’s really important in life that you’re opening as many doors as possible. You never know what opportunities lay on the other side of it.” This was something that we all took to heart, and for me, university was the key to opening many of those doors.
You come from a family with several people involved in cultivating community in the city. How has that influenced you?
I love my family. It’s quite large family – five brothers and sisters, including myself. When we first came to Regina, my father opened the city’s first Indian restaurant, called the India Inn. All of us worked together at the restaurant. We then opened a bigger restaurant on 11th called Café Ashani, and my brother also got into the restaurant business and opened a place on Broad St – it was a bakery, actually.
In the evenings my sisters would convert the place into Café A Gogo. At the time it was one of very few live music venues in the city. Singer-songwriters would come in, and my sisters put candles and tie-dyed tablecloths on the tables.
Being surrounded by such creative people has been inspiring. I remember some professors from the university would hang out at the Café A Gogo. It was an intersection of people who’d come to experience a cultural event – whether it was an out-of-town or local artist. It was a really unique community that developed in the city.
What does having that local perspective bring to your work?
My father was really committed to public service through acts that supported people in our community. I remember from a young age, helping newcomers to the province. We didn’t have our own car, but we would load into the station wagon of a family friend to go to the airport to pick up new people who had come to Saskatchewan, to help them. That really imprinted on me and was why I decided to dedicate my life to public service – it was around some of the values that my father instilled in me.
In all of the jobs I’ve done, I’ve always been very mindful of that, in terms of making sure that the policies that we’re developing are communicated clearly with the public, and that they understand the whys and hows of what we’re doing. This province means everything to me. My family is here – all my brothers and sisters except for one are still in Saskatchewan. I want to make sure that everything we do, everything I do in this role – with all my colleagues in the corporation are going to contribute to making Saskatchewan the best place to live and work – this is my home.
When Hannah Tait BBA'22 convocates this October, she'll have already made a good impression in the world of Agtech. Developed alongside fellow U of R grads and current students during the 24 Hour Startup Powered by Cultivator challenge this past June, Tait's ProdYous app - which connects home gardeners with consumers in search of fresh, local produce - is getting a lot of attention. Hannah speaks with Degrees about food security, working collaboratively, and the importance of taking risks.
Food sustainability has grown as a topic of concern in recent years. What sparked the idea to develop an app that connects urban gardeners with local consumers?
I was formerly the University of Regina Students' Union (URSU) president, which had some food security programming, so I had some experience there. I've also volunteered a lot with the Regina Food Bank. Through those experiences, I was noticing gaps. Right now, produce supply chains are unable to meet people in terms of the price, quality, and accessibility. I viewed this as a social problem because people were not getting access to the food that they needed. But it's also a business problem because consumers do not have the product that need - either they can't access it or they can't afford it. So, there's a gap in the market.
The app has three main pillars: One is to introduce people to gardening; two is education for urban producers; and the third is as a really easy way for people to buy, sell, or donate produce -which provides flexibility. That was something that we were really excited about.
Would the app make accessing fresh produce more affordable? At the grocery store, there might be limited options on what you can buy and for what price. And that price is set by big grocery store chains. If, say, a neighbor has extra tomatoes, sometimes they'll post those (on social media) and they just want to get rid of them. So that could be a donation option. Others might want to sell their produce. And that price point would be a lot more flexible. We don't have the supply chain costs. We don't have to pay for gas to transport produce from California or Mexico. We're still discussing the price point for subscriptions. We think subscriptions would make this revenue-positive, even in the first year.
How do you see the model developing? What does the future hold for ProdYous?
Myself and the rest of the team* have a lot of community networks and partnerships already developed within the food security space. We're hoping to engage with what's already happening and then introduce the technology side to make it more efficient.
One term that we've been using is 'social enterprise.' I'm personally very interested in getting venture capital and that type of investment. It would help us develop in a sustainable way while making sure that communities are being fed. We're looking at a social enterprise model which means operating as a for-profit company, but when you make that profit it goes back into the community towards meaningful causes. We're looking at working with incubators and different community partners to really get it rolling, and we'd be looking at spring launch next year.
How did your time at the University of Regina play into your success as a burgeoning Agtech player?
When I started at the U of R, I really didn't know many people at all. I graduated from high school in Australia, so when I moved back to Regina, I didn't have any kind of network. Starting in my first year, going through the UR Ambassador program, I got to meet so many great people. That's where I initially met my development partner c. So, growing my network in my first year and then going through the business school, and having the opportunity to work on case competitions, like JDCWest, developed my business and presentations skills. When it came to putting myself out there more, say to run for URSU president, it felt like I had the support and the skills to make it happen.
Something else that's really unique about the University of Regina is how accessible all these community leaders are. When you sent them a message, they're going to reply and they're going to help you. It was the same with my professors. It's not in their job description to go have coffee with a second-year business student to give them advice on applying for jobs but that's what they do. It felt there was a really strong commitment to students from the business and arts faculties.
What advice would you give to undergrads or recent grads who are interested in following your lead?
Build your network of likeminded people. And I'd tell people to take big risks! If you told me five years ago that this is what I'd be doing, I would have said 'no way!' You need people who will support you and pick you back up with you fall down. And you need to take those big risks. Nothing is going to change unless you take those risks.
*Hannah Tait would like to acknowledge the team behind ProdYous, including: Zakiyyah Noorally, BSc'22; Yug Shah, BSc'23; Baran Erfani, BSc'24; Yazdan Ranjbar BSc'25; Christopher Jason; and Caitlin Cmoc.
**This interview was condensed for length.
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Building and restoring a historic community hub
April 21, 2022, marked a historic day for not only the University of Regina, but for the citizens and community of Regina. On this day, University of Regina President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Jeff Keshen, along with funders, partners and friends, officially re-opened Darke Hall which became - once again - a stunning centre for the performing arts.
It was all made possible with the support of the Government of Canada's Enabling Accessibility Grant, many private donors, and through a partnership with Conexus Credit Union (Conexus) membership.
Darke Hall under construction in 1929.
History of how the renewal project began
Darke Hall, originally known as the F.N. Darke Building for Music and Art, opened in 1929 as a gift to the University of Regina (formerly Regina College) and an expression of benefactor Francis N. Darke's vision "to build a temple to the arts, and a centre for cultural activity." Before long, Darke Hall became the premier concert hall in Southern Saskatchewan.
The Darke Hall stage was home to this 1959 production of Hansel and Grete
The concert hall underwent several renovations over the decades: rehearsal, recording, and storage rooms designed by architect Clifford Wiens were added in 1962, the building's foundation was rebuilt starting in 1983, and new dressing areas were added in time for a long-awaited re-opening in 1986. Despite these upgrades, Darke Hall continued to deteriorate and eventually its doors were closed due to safety concerns. During this time, the University's College Building on College Avenue was facing similar challenges.
In 2011, two Regina community members, Dr. Lynn Goldman and Dr. Jean Freeman, approached then-president of the University of Regina, Dr.Vianne Timmons, to advocate for the historic buildings, calling on her to invest in restoration. From this conversation, the College Avenue Campus Renewal Project was born.
Innovative thinking to community building
By September 2015, Darke Hall had been closed for several years. Community groups actively called for its re-opening, however, significant funding was required to bring the building up to code. Exploring local investment options to restore Darke Hall the University released a request for proposals (RFP) in 2016, seeking a development partner to support the College Avenue Campus Renewal Project.
When the University issued the RFP, Conexus was well into its journey of searching for a new location to consolidate its corporate services employees. Already having investigated 17 sites for its new headquarters, it soon realized that none would accomplish what a partnership with the University could. The partnership had the potential to help solve Conexus' operational needs while supporting the community in restoring the College Avenue Campus and Darke Hall.
It was a hard decision to make; Conexus knew that the partnership would be a complex undertaking. As a local credit union with core values of being bold, creative, responsible and authentic, Conexus knew it needed to be bold, creative, and to think outside the box for the betterment of the larger community and be responsible in consideration for the future generations of College Avenue Campus learners. Conexus submitted a proposal to the University and in June 2016 was announced as the chosen partner. Through this partnership Conexus would contribute $8.25 million to the project.
Artist rendering of the Conexus Credit Union head office and the Darke Hall atrium that has solved accessibility issues in
the refurbished performance space. (Artist rendering courtesy of P3Architecture Partnership)
Over time, this partnership has helped save College Avenue Campus and restore Darke Hall to a prestigious performing arts centre. It has also created new amenities for the community to enjoy for many years to come. This includes:
A shared link space between Darke Hall and the Conexus Head Office building. Conexus helped the University save an additional $10 million on infrastructure, maintenance, and utilities due to shared heating/cooling infrastructure and the construction of the shared link. The shared link space creates accessibility into Darke Hall and can serve as a lobby or reception area for special events.
Main floor amenities open to the public during regular business hours, including public washrooms, an ATM, water filling stations, seating areas and a local café. More than 20 percent of Conexus' building is shared public space.
Re-aligning Wascana Drive to help improve safety, traffic and pedestrian flow. This included straightening and adding signaling/lights to the new College Avenue and Wascana Drive intersection and creating public parking on both sides of the street.
Installation of a new water line to service the Conexus building and the new Wascana Pool.
Ensuring environmental impacts were minimized. While some trees were required to be relocated or removed during this project, for every one tree that was removed, Conexus funded three new trees planted in the park. The Conexus Head Office Building also has underground parking, ensuring that no new outdoor parking lots were created. Conexus also makes parking spots rented from the University of Regina available free to the public outside of business hours (after 5 p.m. on weekdays and all-day on weekends).
Creating a space for a Conexus' tech incubator, Cultivator powered by Conexus, helping local startups launch, grow and scale from right here at home.
Future of Darke Hall
As part of Darke Hall's grand re-opening, it unveiled a new logo and announced a new management agreement with a not-for-profit society, governed by a community board - the Darke Hall Society - that will handle all leasing and operations of Darke Hall for years to come. This arrangement allows the University to retain ownership of the theatre but removes any operational costs to run Darke Hall. It's also expected to help local community arts organizations within limited funds to access the world class facility.
To learn more about Darke Hall or to inquire about booking the theatre, visit www.darkehall.ca.
Audience members watch a video on the occasion of the Grand Reopening of Darke Hall on April 21, 2022.
Thank you, Conexus
While each organization has different core interests, we both share the same value and commitment of community. Thank you, Conexus, for stepping up in a time of need.
This partnership is a true example of what is possible when the community comes together to collaborate and solve problems. Together, we have been able to preserve a piece of our shared history and build a community space for future generations. That is what community is all about.