Bob Williams – British Columbia’s Olympian Social Entrepreneur

Many British Columbians, myself included, believe Bob Williams is our greatest social entrepreneur.  His accomplishments are Olympian.  The fruits of many of them are on display during the 2010 Vancouver Games. While a Provincial Cabinet Minister he oversaw the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve (this was in the early 1970’s decades away from our awareness of 100 mile diets and food security).

Robson Square, so prevalent as a gathering place during the 2010 Games, would have been simply high-rise office towers if Bob had not rejected the initial design and brought in renowned architect Arthur Erickson. The go-ahead to save Blackcomb Mountain and create the Whistler Town Centre – Bob once again.  

One recent example of his brilliance was investing the capital reserves of ICBC in Surrey Central City.  Its centerpiece, Central City Tower has won global awards for its architectural splendor. This has revitalized North Surrey and coincidentally is the focal point of Surrey’s celebration of the Games.  A final example of his Olympics influence – guess whose home KD Lang, who sang in front of billions at the Games opening ceremony, stayed in decades ago when she was starting out playing at Bob’s Railway Club?

Bob has also played an instrumental role  since 1983 in restoring Vancity’s control and direction to its grassroots members and guiding its growth as the largest Credit Union in North America..

As with all giants there is a back – story to his public accomplishments.  Bob has also been a long time champion of people with disabilities and their families.

I was reminded of this other side of Bob during PLAN’s 20th Anniversary celebrations.  He attended a Saturday morning dialogue on Belonging we hosted with Vancity and John Ralston Saul. ( )

My relationship with Bob began when he asked me to introduce him to John McKnight creator of the Asset Based Community Development Institute (  We invited him to see the fruits of John’s work in Prince George – Project Friendship.   (I have written about this on previous occasions –

We had arrived the previous evening and Bob planned to fly up in the morning and back the same day.  Alas he encountered foggy weather and spent most of the day flying back and forth circling Prince George and back to Vancouver. By then Bob was Deputy Minister for Crown Corporations in the Mike Harcourt government and we fully expected him to cancel after the first try.  On the 4th try he made it!  With no supper and an aggravating and non-productive day in the air (this is before blackberries and laptops) Bob asked to see the slide show presentation immediately.

When the lights came back on Bob sat silently for the longest time, tears in his eyes.  I still remember his promise.  ‘I get it.  Let me know how I can help.’ 

Since that time Bob has championed the inclusion and participation of people with disabilities.  He assisted us present several proposals to end the loneliness of people with disabilities to various Deputy Ministers and heads of Crowns.

When Bob became Chair of the Insurance Corporation of BC he encouraged his staff to use PLAN’s expertise to develop social networks for people with brain injuries – a program PLAN proudly maintains today.  As Chair of Vancity Enterprises he helped move our relationship with Vancity from grantee to partner.  PLAN’s financial sustainability can be directly linked to Bob which is why he is an honoured member of our Circle of Friends.

I consider Bob a friend and mentor. I want to be like him when I grow up – curious, intense, passionate, and creatively implementing big ideas …constantly. For the social entrepreneurs among us we can find no better role model than Bob Williams – the modest giant who is still churning out change at a rate that would put most of us to shame at any age.

Related Links:

Compelling pod-cast interview with Bob on the Paradise Makers series at SFU Encyclopedia of BC entry…/BobWilliams/ – an overview of Bob’s career at Vancity   - website created by Bob’s friends for his re-election campaign to Vancity’s Board

This post was composed for PLAN Institute's website.  Click here for a direct link:    


 Share with others

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>