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Engineer and business leader Gina Cody makes a $15-million gift for Concordia's next generation

On September 24, Concordia made history. It became the first Canadian university with an engineering faculty named after a woman
September 24, 2018
By Joseph Leger

Gina Cody, MEng 81, PhD 89 Gina (Parvaneh Baktash) Cody, MEng 81, PhD 89
“I believe society will be a better place for everyone when higher education is a fundamental right,” says Gina (Parvaneh Baktash) Cody, MEng 81, PhD 89.

“In many countries, education is the only way for women or the underprivileged to succeed. It is a natural evolution to a better and more inclusive world.”

Cody speaks from experience. After arriving from Iran in 1979, she became the first woman to graduate with a PhD in building engineering from Concordia. She then worked for three decades to become a highly successful engineering executive.

On September 24, Cody’s conviction in the power of education and gratitude to her alma mater led her to make an historic $15-million donation to Concordia and the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science.

Cody’s gift is the largest, to date, in support of the Campaign for Concordia: Next-Gen. Now, which kicked off in 2017.

In recognition of her generosity and achievements in her field, the faculty has been renamed the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science. It is the first university engineering faculty in Canada to be named after a woman.

“This is a watershed moment for engineering and computer science in Canada,” says Concordia President Alan Shepard.

“Gina Cody’s gift will have a profound impact on our institution. It allows us to fund three research chairs, new scholarships for students and major inclusivity and equity initiatives. Gina is a role model for all of us. Her generosity will greatly benefit the next generation — and ultimately our society.”

Cody hopes her example will encourage fellow alumni.

“I want this donation to inspire other proud Concordia graduates to come forward,” she says. “The goal is that in 10 to 15 years there will be so many examples like me that I am forgotten. I hope there will be so many women in science, engineering and technology that it’s no longer an issue — that it becomes the norm.”

Watch Gina Cody's entire speech on YouTube: 'I am a woman, I am an engineer — and this is my school!'

Cody’s donation will provide for graduate and undergraduate scholarships — to attract top students and researchers, and encourage inclusiveness — and bolster next-gen research on smart cities. It will also support three new chairs: in data analytics and artificial intelligence; in the internet of things; and in Industry 4.0 and advanced manufacturing.

“The impact of Gina Cody’s gift is huge,” says Amir Asif, dean of the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science. “We aspire to be the next-generation university — developing technological advances for the benefit of society. A significant portion of the gift will be used to provide greater opportunities for visible minorities and women.”

‘My education was fun’

Gina Cody Gina Cody in her graduate school days

Cody’s commitment began when she was a young child. One of five siblings — three brothers, who all became engineers, and one sister, a dentist — she has vivid memories of her mother underlining the importance of higher education.

“My mother was a housewife who never finished high school. She married very young, and she felt it was extremely important for me and my sister to be in charge of our own destiny,” Cody recalls. “My mother said, ‘The only way that you can survive in this society as a woman is with education.’”

After completing a bachelor’s in engineering from Aryamehr University of Technology (now Sharif University of Technology) in Tehran, Cody left the country at the end of the Iranian Revolution. She arrived in Montreal in 1979 with $2,000 in her pocket and a plan to get a master’s degree. “At the time, tuition in Canada was $4,000,” says Cody. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Where was I going to get the money? But higher education was my goal.”

She was accepted at another university. However, her brother, Mahmoud Bigtashi, BEng 79, had recently graduated from Concordia. He convinced her to meet with one of his engineering mentors, Cedric Marsh.

“I met with Professor Marsh two days after arriving in Canada,” Cody remembers. “We spoke for an hour, and at the end he said, ‘I really want you to join Concordia. Why would you go any other place?’ He gave me financial support immediately and I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t. He changed my life, and so did Concordia.”

Cody also worked as a teaching assistant while completing her master’s degree and taught in the faculty while pursuing her PhD. “Concordia made my arrival in Canada easy and my education fun — and I don’t think I would have had that experience elsewhere,” she says. “This university gave me the credentials to establish my career and the experience and the confidence that I needed to succeed.”

Gina Cody and Cedric Marsh Gina Cody and Cedric Marsh, at her PhD convocation in 1989

There is an additional reason Concordia has a special place in Gina Cody’s heart: it is where she met her husband, Thomas Cody, MBA 83.

“There was a common room on the second floor of the building that the MBA program shared with the Centre for Building Studies,” explains Thomas Cody, a retired senior vice-president at Bank of America in Toronto. “I knew Gina had a phone in her grad office.

I would use the excuse that the lounge phone was busy to go in there and fake a phone call, so I could talk to her. I must have done something right because the relationship started from there.”

They were married in 1981 and have two daughters: Roya, who is completing her PhD in engineering at the University of Waterloo, and Tina, who is pursuing a law degree at the University of Toronto.

‘They all knew my name’

Gina Cody in Toronto, in the 1990s Gina Cody in Toronto, in the 1990s

Standing out became the norm for Cody. As a student, she was often the only woman in her classes. And throughout her three-decade career, she would often be the sole woman at engineering events with hundreds of attendees.

“I would go to a meeting where there were 700 men and I would be the only woman in that conference,” she says. “I was respected for who I am because of my knowledge and understanding of the area of my practice.”

From early childhood onwards, Cody’s father fostered her innate confidence. “My father believed I had to be able to handle myself in a ‘man’s world,’” says Cody. “He would make me give speeches in public, and he would make me teach classes at the boys school he owned. It became very natural for me to handle myself in a male-dominated practice or classroom.”

While she enjoyed these experiences, Cody also found there was less room for error as a woman. She had to be sure her work was consistently flawless.

“I was very competitive; I always wanted to be the best,” she says. “I was a perfectionist and if I didn’t get 100 per cent on my exams I would be up all night telling myself, ‘Next time, study harder, work harder.’”

In the professional world, Cody’s high standards and relentless work ethic were immediately clear to those around her. She quickly distinguished herself, first as an engineer and then as president and principal shareholder of CCI Group Inc., a Toronto-based engineering consulting firm.

Under her leadership, CCI was named one of Canada’s most profitable companies owned by a woman by Profit magazine in 2010 and Cody was named one of Canada’s Top Women Entrepreneurs. She retired after selling her company in 2016.

Among Cody’s many career accolades is an Award of Merit from the Canadian Standards Association, a Volunteer Service Award from the Government of Ontario and the Order of Honour at the officer level from the Professional Engineers of Ontario. Cody was named Alumna of the Year by the Concordia University Alumni Association in 2011 and a Great Concordian in 2014.

Her success came as no surprise to those who know her. Take Rudy Ruttimann, executive director of Sketch, a community arts organization where Cody volunteers:

“Gina is a role model to everyone around her,” she says. “And, in particular, to young women. Gina mentors them and shows them how to focus on their passions, to build what they want to build and how to become the person they want to be in the world. Then, when they achieve that, to give back to their communities. Gina sets a great example.”

Her long-time colleagues agree.

“Gina is honest, hard-working, knowledgeable and a problem-solver — if there was something that wasn’t right, she always told her clients,” says Adam Salehi, friend and president of Atlas Constructors Inc.

“Everybody loves her. I haven’t met anybody in 25 years who has anything bad to say about her. I’ve learned a lot from Gina.”

‘This gift is for the next generation’

The Codys (from left): Roya, Thomas, Tina and Gina The Codys (from left): Roya, Thomas, Tina and Gina

For Cody, helping others has always been a priority.

“When I was at university in Iran, I would go to hospitals for needy children,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep after, but I felt I had to do something.”

“Gina is an understated superwoman — her work ethic is off the charts,” says Johnny Zuccon, interim registrar at the Professional Engineers of Ontario, where Cody volunteered for nearly 20 years. “You can’t help but be in awe.”

As her business grew, Cody also made a point to be there for her family.

Daughter Tina remembers: “She would prepare dinner, and then spend three to four hours tutoring me in physics. We would be up until midnight sometimes, and she’d be waking up the next day at 5 a.m. to go to work.”

Her daughter Roya adds: “She’d get home every night regardless if she was working out of town. Her rule was that she had to be there by the time I woke up the next day. So she would say, ‘OK, I’ll fly out to the site but I’m taking the red eye home to be there before you get up.’”

Cody is currently a member of Concordia’s Board of Governors and vice-chair of the Campaign for Concordia for the Toronto region. She has also given time to the Canadian Standards Association; the Canadian Condominium Institute; the Professional Engineers of Ontario; and Sketch, an organization that supports young people who are struggling with poverty or homelessness.

Cody’s niece Christine Anahita Bigtashi, an engineering graduate student at Concordia, says her aunt is an inspiration. “Gina always told me to make sure I am doing something I love. She always loved what she did and it helped push her towards her goals. And if she can do it then I can, too.”

This ethos clearly extends to Cody’s alma mater.

“Concordia is a great institution — the level of education is amazing,” says Cody. “My gift is for the next generation, so that more people can succeed like I did. And hopefully, many years from now, there will be a similar donation. Together, we can make Concordia an even better and more amazing university for the next generation.”

Find out more about Gina Cody's $15-million gift to Concordia.

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