Portrait of J. Sebastian Van Berkom
Like many grateful parents, J. Sebastian van Berkom’s first experience with the Children’s happened when his daughter was extremely young. “She was probably six months old or so. She suffered from febrile convulsions,” he explains. “We spent five years going back and forth to the Montreal Children’s Hospital and after that, great help by the staff.” As soon as he was able, Sebastian’s first major philanthropic commitment was to the Children’s through a substantial gift. “The whole future of her life could have been at risk.”
In 2015, Sebastian made another very important move to ensure a better future for other kids, this time for children from low income neighbourhoods. He made a gift of $1 million to help support a chair in social pediatrics. The Nicolas Steinmetz – Gilles Julien Chair in Social Pediatrics in the Community, named for retired pediatrician and former Children’s Executive Director, Dr. Nicolas Steinmetz, and Dr. Gilles Julien, will focus on the challenges faced by disadvantaged children and the social factors that affect their health and wellbeing. Research will be done in the field. Sebastian says he likes the fact that he’s supporting social pediatrics, a form of healthcare for children that isn’t easily integrated into the government’s current model of pediatric care. “In a CLSC, you go in and you get treated, you go home and you’re done. But social pediatrics doesn’t work that way. You have to have constant follow up with the children involved.” To ensure the project’s continued success, Sebastian will stay involved as a member of an advisory committee dedicated to exploring ways to replicate Dr. Julien’s model throughout Quebec, Canada and other parts of the world.
An art lover at heart
Sebastian grew up surrounded by art. His father was a skilled artist and musician who brought his family from Holland to Canada when Sebastian was a young child. “To me, art touched my soul early in life.’’ Because of this, he happily supports causes like the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, the Festival des Arts in Saint Sauveur, and the Montreal Bach Festival. However, one of his most important gifts to the arts has also enriched the city of Montreal. He was a key figure in the acquisition of Dale Chihuly’s iconic glass sculpture, The Sun, located at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Sebastian says his decision to commit $500,000 was quite spontaneous. When a museum foundation staffer told him about the piece and how the museum was in the middle of a fundraising campaign to keep the glass installation in Montreal , he says ‘’it touched my heart. I thought, this has to stay in Montreal and I decided to fund the project.’’ In fact, he is such a great admirer of Chihuly’s work that he visited the artist’s Seattle workshop.
Just call him Mr. Risk
As a successful entrepreneur, Sebastian now has the ability to give back and is grateful to his alma mater, Concordia University, where he learned his business and entrepreneurial skills. It therefore comes as no surprise that he has found ways to enrich the education of other young students. He established the Van Berkom Chair in Small-Cap Equities to conduct global research on small-cap stocks. He also created an annual case competition in small-cap stocks open to eligible North American universities. But his boldest move was to donate $1 million to the John Molson School of Business Investment Management Program so that students can invest real money. Graduates of this program become Fellows of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Fellowship Program under the Van Berkom Small-Cap Investment Management Program at the JMSB. On the gamble he’s taking allowing students to invest his hard-earned money, Sebastian says laughingly ‘’just call me Mr. Risk’’ but he also has a warning for the students: ‘’they better not lose it!’’
And Sebastian’s involvement in the causes he holds dear continues. This summer, he has agreed to help out with the Foundation’s annual golf tournament, which raises money to attract and retain top medical talent at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. After playing in the tournament a number of times, Sebastian accepted the role of Honourary President for the event’s 20th edition. Even though it will involve regular meetings throughout the summer, Sebastian doesn’t mind. ‘’I like to get involved. My wife thinks I’m crazy but I’m an action-oriented guy. And if I decide to do something, I like to do it well.’’