Passion, drive and learning to celebrate achievement

Kim Tholl sits on a log, legs up, on a sandy beach.

There’s no doubt about it. Kimberly Tholl is as bright as they come.

The Royal Roads University Doctor of Business Administration student has a Bachelor of Mathematics and a Master of Applied Science, both from the University of Waterloo (not to mention designations in supply chain and project management). She’s the director of supply chain at TRIUMF, Canada’s national particle accelerator centre. There, she ensures the country’s brightest minds have the services and goods they need to advance science, medicine and industry through research.

Now, just months into her DBA studies, she’s the recipient of a prestigious Doctoral Scholarship for Research on Sustainability and Climate Action

She grew up believing in hard work, but not necessarily believing in her own intelligence. 

Now, Tholl says she’s learning to celebrate her achievements, and hoping to inspire others to celebrate theirs.

“Not smart enough”

Tholl, an only child, was born in mainland China where she lived with her family until immigrating to Canada in middle school. At three, her parents sent her to boarding school.

“That experience really shaped me as a person,” she says of the physical and emotional abuse she endured in those early years. “I learned from a young age that you’re not valued, that you’re not up to standard, and that you are alone to fend for yourself.” 

When she returned home from boarding school at six, her family reinforced those teachings.

“My father actually told me this: ‘You are not very smart. What you do have is that you work hard. That’s all you’ve got.’”

She learned to work harder than others to make up for her perceived shortcomings. And she learned that you never, ever share your successes for fear of appearing arrogant.

It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that Tholl’s father told her that he knew how smart she was. He said he kept quiet so she wouldn’t rest on her intellect at the expense of her work ethic.

Keeping quiet about personal and professional successes is a lesson that’s stuck with her – through her middle school and high school years in Canada, and throughout her university education, as well.

When she got the news that she had won the doctoral award, she says she was “shocked.”

That evening, Tholl says she celebrated her scholarship simply by sharing the news with her husband.

“I’ve always felt it risky to celebrate yourself because other people may think of you as arrogant, and that is a terrible quality to have so I just figured, it’s too much hassle and too unsafe.”

Then, classmate Mina Sahota told her something that changed everything.

“‘We’re visible minority women, doing amazing things Kim… Let your community celebrate you… So go shine,’” Tholl remembers Sahota telling her, who happens to be the recipient of a similar scholarship for her work focusing on equity, diversity and inclusion. 

“I realized that keeping quiet is actually not the right thing to do,” Tholl says.

The supply chain doctor (to be) will see you now

Tholl’s motivation to apply for the DBA program was twofold. After achieving so much and climbing so high (she could slide into any C-suite position if she wanted to), Tholl says it was time to stop climbing the corporate ladder and do something “just for me.”

And doing something for herself includes trying to solve some big problems that affect us all. 

Tholl's research includes a key segment of the economy that has been drastically altered by the pandemic: she’s looking into supply chain disruptions caused by a shortage of workers worldwide. At the same time, she's trying to make shipping stuff all over the planet less harmful to the environment. 

“If you think about sustainability and climate action, for decades now, people have been talking about recycling and reducing CO2. I feel like that’s child’s play. It’s too slow. We have to completely redesign supply chains,” she says.

How might that happen? Tholl’s not sure yet. She’s just at the beginning stages of her research but she thinks onshoring – moving business operations or production back to a company's home country from overseas – might be part of the answer.

“Right now, you may source something from across the world, you manufacture it, and you send it right back across the world again,” she says. “So there’s so many logistics complexities that lengthen the supply chain, adding a burden to the environment.

“Labour is thought of as cheaper in China or Vietnam but unfortunately, it’s not really cheaper environmentally. So we’re talking about bringing back manufacturing to our own continent and not just to secure jobs but also to shorten that supply chain.”

It’s an important topic and a growing area of concern, says Assoc. Prof. Hassan Wafai, Doctor of Business Administration program head as well as Tholl’s dissertation supervisor.

“Little research connects climate changes, sustainability and supply chain resilience. Kim is an excellent DBA researcher, and I think her research will result in a number of strong publications.”

If things go to plan, that’s Tholl’s hope, too. And she’s hoping the DBA will help her get there.

“Who am I? If I’m Dr. Kimberly Tholl, perhaps I will have a better chance of influencing others to do the right thing.”

A social (media) experiment

Soon after her conversation with Sahota, Tholl posted the news to LinkedIn.

“I thought, let’s do an experiment – just to test my own hypothesis. If I share it, what will happen?”

Surprisingly for Tholl, the congratulations rolled in. Private messages, calls and texts rang, buzzed and pinged her phone. She heard from people she hadn’t connected with in years.

“It was a very uplifting feeling and I thought holy smokes, I’ve missed out on a whole bunch of things – the celebration, happiness, the positivity that comes with all the successes.”

One of the best feelings was when her parents told her they were proud of her.

“They’ve told me they’re proud of me before, but it really stuck this time,” she says.

Tholl says it was one of the harder things in life – celebrating herself publicly like that. But it was also an important one because it also celebrates those people in your lives that made the success possible.

“In many Asian cultures, we value working really hard – especially women. There are lots of us. They’re out there. We just don’t hear about them. I’m fortunate to have been invited to share my story. Hopefully others are willing to share their stories as well.”

Canada marks Asian Heritage Month in May. This story is part of a series of RRU articles celebrating the month, which focuses on stories that celebrate the contributions of people of Asian descent in our university and beyond.

Visit our Asian Heritage Month webpage for more stories about Asian people in our community, to learn about upcoming events and discussions, and to find cultural and educational resources put together by the Royal Roads Library.

We always want to hear stories about the people, programs and places that are the Royal Roads experience. Share yours via the RRU Story Exchange and it could be featured on our website and social media.