Sarah Roth, CEO and alum, dares first class of Northeastern graduates in Vancouver to blaze their own trails

During the Commencement ceremony for Northeastern graduates in Vancouver, Sarah Roth, the CEO and president of BC Cancer Foundation, shared some the lessons she’s learned throughout her almost 30-year career in fundraising. Photo by Lucho Berzek for Northeastern University

In the early 1990s, Sarah Roth met Bob Davis, the former CEO and founder of one of the first search engines, Lycos, and a Northeastern alum. As a young woman with drive, ambition and curiosity, Roth was inspired by Davis’ story and went on to not only graduate from Northeastern but to become a CEO herself.

On Monday, Roth shared this story and some words of wisdom during the Commencement ceremony for the first class of graduates from Northeastern’s Vancouver campus. With Associate Dean Carrie Chassels serving as MC, the Commencement also included comments from Steve Eccles, dean and CEO of Northeastern in Vancouver, and a student address from computer science graduate student Tarek Elaydi. 

Madison Mailey, an Olympic gold medal-winning rower and Northeastern alum, was the keynote speaker, while Michael Pollastri, senior vice provost for Northeastern’s Portland, Maine, campus and academic lead of the Roux Institute, conferred the degrees. Commencement also featured a performance from the indigenous all-women percussion and vocal group M’Girl.

Roth encouraged the Vancouver graduates, calling them “daring trailblazers,” noteworthy praise from the 2001 Northeastern grad who has had a nearly 30-year career working on and leading fundraising campaigns for academic institutions and healthcare providers. Roth now serves as the CEO and president of the BC Cancer Foundation in Vancouver, the only provincial cancer center in Canada. 

Her work has helped raise money for programs and research efforts at the University of British Columbia, as well as Boston Children’s Hospital and New York Presbyterian Hospital.

“I believe human beings are altruistic, so to be in a role where you can harness that for the good is incredibly rewarding and it’s fascinating,” Roth told News@Northeastern.

After graduating with a bachelor’s and master’s in history and French from Washington University in St. Louis, Roth worked as a secretary in the university’s alumni and development office, where she got a taste for fundraising. Looking around at her co-workers, she thought, “Maybe I should give this a shot.” A naturally extroverted and intellectually curious person, Roth took to the work like a fish to water. When done right, Roth said, fundraising can be a form of self-expression for donors.

“Whether it’s in my environment where you’ve lost someone to cancer and you want to give back and it’s part of the healing, part of the mourning, part of the honoring or you’re grateful for your alma mater for giving you this education that has launched your career and you want to say ‘thank you’ and give back for the next generation of students, that’s very special,” Roth said. 

Roth went on to work for the Humane Society of St. Louis before moving to Boston and attending night classes at Northeastern. She graduated in 2001 with her master’s in Business Administration and ended up staying at the university to work in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

In 2008, Roth moved to Canada to head up development and alumni affairs for the University of British Columbia, which saw her overseeing a multi-year $1.5 billion fundraising campaign. Regardless of the size of the campaign, Roth said the success of a fundraising effort comes down to an organization’s ability to inspire and build trust with donors. At its best, fundraising is about building relationships and making authentic connections.

“People get solicitations all over the place, but how do you rise above?” Roth asked. “I believe it’s through being creative and sincere about what the need is and the impact.”

Roth joined the BC Cancer Foundation as CEO and president in 2016. Her six-year tenure at the foundation, which operates six cancer centers located throughout British Columbia, is a dream fulfilled. Almost 30 years after she met Bob Davis, Roth is a CEO in charge of one of Canada’s most prominent cancer care providers. It might have been Davis’ words that inspired her, but Roth has only ever followed her own path to the top.

“My vice president, Fatima [Hassam] … she says I come into an organization, I transform it, and everyone is trying to keep up,” Roth said.

Relentlessly optimistic and authentic, Roth never wavered from her commitment to fostering growth in healthcare and education. Twenty-one years later, Roth sees herself in the crowd of the smiling Vancouver graduates and the ambition, drive, and trailblazing spirit that will lead them into the futures that they pave for themselves.

“You are the next generation of daring trailblazers, visionary thought leaders, and distinctive pioneers,” Roth said at the Commencement ceremony. “You will change the way we think, communicate, and experience the world around us. Your potential is virtually limitless, and your ambition is unrelenting.”

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