Changing the future one student at a time

Esmail and Safan Bharwani

It’s a rare day when you meet someone whose generosity has impacted the lives of so many others — someone whose dedication to philanthropy has moved mountains and encouraged life-long learning for dozens of students across Alberta. And when you do meet Esmail Bharwani and his wife Safana, you immediately get a sense of why they are so dedicated to the success and well-being of others.

“Philanthropy may include being generous and being prepared to share your wealth,” says Esmail. “But, to be generous, you do not have to be just wealthy but should also have the desire, commitment and empathy to see the world from the eyes of the beholder.”

The Bharwanis’ passion for philanthropy radiates from their generous and warm personalities. It is a daily commitment that comes from their upbringings.

“I ask myself a question every day about the purpose of my life,” shares Esmail. “To get an answer, I explore the past … I look to my parents as to what they were doing for us and for others in the community … My parents had big hearts. They never looked back when they were asked for help.  Whether they had adequate resources for themselves or not, their approach to helping others never changed.”

A lifelong journey

Esmail’s life journey has taken him across the world — from his hometown in Tanzania to England and eventually Canada. His experiences along the way shaped and motivated his commitment to others, particularly his dedication to education.

“As we were growing up in Tanzania, then one of the poorest countries in the world, we observed the poverty and suffering of the local people,” he reflects. "And as we travelled around the Third World countries, we saw a similarity in the quality of life challenges of the local population", he added.  “I soon realized that the world would be fair and equitable, and people would be happier if everyone was educated and able to work in good jobs … and I asked ‘how can I help these people?’”

This realization ignited a passion in Bharwani around the importance of education, and in 1965 he moved to England to pursue his professional accounting designation — a move that his father encouraged despite the disruption this would cause to the family business. As part of a group of international students, Bharwani experienced first-hand the challenges faced by individuals who move far from home and lack the financial support to continue their educational dreams. When he ran into financial difficulties a professor from his program found him a job at an accounting firm that provided Bharwani with enough earnings to get by, another experience of generosity that he would take with him.

Bharwani family.
The Bharwani family, the "backbone of the Foundation." 

Bharwani and his family moved to Canada in 1973 where his hard work and perseverance led him through a long and successful career that was full of the same financial ups and downs his parents had gone through in Tanzania. But at the end of the day, those hardships only reinforced his determination to help others out of similar situations. Bharwani has been a life-long volunteer serving on a number of organizations including professional and not-for-profit municipal, regional and national boards and committees. He has learned a lot from these experiences about life challenges for people in Canada and around the world.

A dedication to education

Bharwani’s dedication to education also followed him throughout his career. After nearly three decades as a successful accountant, he decided to switch gears and try his hand at law, graduating from the University of Calgary’s law school in 2004 at the age of 63 and was called to the Bar in 2005.

“I am a lifelong learner because I love to learn more, even if it meant sacrificing my pleasure," he explains. “I went to school when I was five years old and ended my formal academic and professional education when I turned 63. I taught for the faculty of Continuing Education (at the University of Calgary) from 1980-2000. One of the seminars I taught was Starting a small business, which lasted for 20 years.”

The Bharwani’s have long supported a number of causes such as cancer and heart research, women’s shelters, the AgaKhan Foundation, and the Institute of Ismaili Studies, among others. But in 2009 Esmail decided to focus his philanthropic efforts.

“Talking to students when I was teaching I realized I needed to focus on people's education,” he says. “On reflection I realized what my parents always said: education will always stay with you and help you succeed. So, I started focusing on the education of students.”

A multiplier effect

The Bharwani’s decided to support students through endowments and scholarships at a number of post-secondary institutions in Calgary including SAIT, Mt. Royal University, Bow Valley College, Athabasca University and the University of Calgary. The endowments are designed to provide permanent financial awards to last in perpetuity.

“We figured we needed to provide for the education of our children and grandchildren first. Once they had been taken care of, we thought of other children and their families…We asked ourselves ‘How many other families can we make happy?’”

For Esmail this kind of philanthropy mirrors his belief in the ripple effect of generosity.

“It’s a multiplier effect. If you help someone, they will want to help others,” he explains. “I believe if students educate themselves they can improve the quality of their own life and that of their families. And when they are ready, many of them may follow suit for others.”

Since their decision to support education, hundreds of students across Alberta have enjoyed the benefits annually of the Bharwani’s generosity — students like SAIT Journalism graduate Emily Meyers.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at SAIT. It has been a challenging few years navigating school during the pandemic, but I feel it has helped me grow in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise,” she shares. “It has been a wonderful, albeit trying learning experience to navigate school, work and life, and this award really meant the world to me! Thank you so, so, so much!”

Emily Meyers, Esmail & Safana Bharwani Award recipient
Emily Meyers, 2022 Esmail & Safana Bharwani Award recipient

Student benefit

When he reflects on his proudest achievements as a donor, Esmail Bharwani says it’s all about seeing the benefits to students.

“I love to meet students and have one-on-one conversations and hear their stories of success and challenges,” he says. “And when they mention that the award that our family gave helped them complete their education, that is the best giving experience I could ask for. I feel humbled that I was able to contribute towards their progress in some small way.”

Bharwani’s hope for the recipients of his family’s awards, as well as future generations, is the recognition of the reciprocal nature of philanthropy and generosity, and that when one works hard they have the opportunity to share the fruits of their labours with others.

“Donors work hard all their life to create savings — it is their hard-earned dollars that they place in an endowment,” he says. “And I want them to remember that we can only make progress if we help each other - that is to be generous with our time, knowledge and money.”

Family matters

As he reflects on his life’s work as an accountant, lawyer, philanthropist, community volunteer, father, grandfather, son and husband, Bharwani notes it has been the experiences and relationships that have motivated him all along.

“My parents were the ones who had a lot of impact on me being generous with money, time, knowledge and skills in sharing with others,” he says. “However, my wife Safana has always been greatly supportive, and very influential in my efforts to help others. For 51 years of our marriage, she has been the pillar of my strength, motivation and support in whatever I have been able to accomplish.”

Bharwani’s whole family regularly participates in SAIT events and is enthusiastically involved in students’ activities. Together they have established the Esmail Safana Farzana Fayaz Bharwani Foundation that has supported hundreds of students since 2008.

Find out how you can make a difference in the lives of students at SAIT here