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From Chemistry to C-Suite: How Rotman’s MBA Transformed John Graham’s Career Path

May 30, 2023

John Graham (MBA '07) didn’t initially have a background in business. Instead, his focus was science. He had earned his PhD in physical chemistry, and for nearly a decade, worked in research and strategy at Xerox Innovation Group.

John Graham speaking at the New Alumni Kick-off event in February 2023.

When he decided to enrol in Rotman’s MBA program as a part-time student in 2004, he had no idea that this choice would forever change his life.

“The Rotman MBA had a profound impact on my career trajectory,” he told a group of event goers at the recent New Alumni Kickoff. “I’d actually say it probably had a profound impact on my life trajectory.”

Indeed, he traded his lab coat for a corner office, and today serves as President and CEO of CPP Investments – a third-party asset manager that manages the surplus funds of the Canada Pension Plan.

After receiving his MBA at Rotman 16 years ago, he received a call from a search firm, asking if he would be interested in connecting with the relatively new investment organization.

“My first reaction was, ‘John Graham is a really common name. Are you sure you have the right John Graham?’” he laughs.

To this day, how the search firm got his name is still a mystery, though he knows the recommendation came from one of his former classmates, illustrating the value of the Rotman alumni network.

When he agreed to meet with CPP Investments about the role, he had some decisions to make. Graham admits he didn’t know much about the new organization at the time, and also, knew it would be a major career change: he would be leaving a mid-level executive career in the corporate world to become a relatively junior investment professional, though he was quickly drawn in by CPP’s potential.

“This was an organization that had the governance, the capabilities, the ambition, and the resources to be great – not just in a Canadian context, but in a global context,” he says.

Since joining CPP Investments in 2008, Graham has worked in both the Total Portfolio Management group (now Total Fund Management) and in Private Investments. In 2015, he served as Managing Director and Global Head of Principal Credit Investments. A few years later in 2018, Graham was Senior Managing Director and Global Head of Credit Investments, where he was responsible for leading credit investments globally.

"The Rotman MBA had a profound impact on my career trajectory."

—John Graham

In February 2021, he was appointed President and CEO responsible for leading CPP Investments and its investment activities – helping the organization reach that potential he saw at that initial meeting so many years ago. He adds that his career today can be traced back to his time at Rotman, and the friends he made while earning his MBA – including the anonymous Rotman classmate who initially put forth his name to the search firm.

 “You never know where opportunities are going to present themselves,” Graham says.

In addition to his time at Rotman, he adds that he has always remained curious and open to new opportunities which has helped him throughout his career.

“Curiosity . . . (as well as) really maintaining that learning mindset – that growth mindset – and taking risks when opportunities present themselves (has certainly worked),” he says.

He also advises new Rotman alumni to never stop learning.

“I hope that all of you continue to learn, continue to be curious, and are pleasantly surprised by all of the opportunities that await you in your fantastic and successful careers,” he told the group of new alumni. “Be open to new opportunities . . . many of those opportunities may come from classmates in the room today.”

Graham credits his time at Rotman for his “non-linear” career transformational journey, and remains a proud member of the Rotman’s global alumni network. He recently gave the keynote address at New Alumni Kick-Off event, hosted in February, an annual event that welcomes soon-to-be Rotman grads to a global community of more than 17,000 alumni.

Rotman hosts a number of ways for its robust alumni network to connect, including the annual New Alumni Kick-Off, Reunite at Rotman and the Rotman Connect app. Alumni can also subscribe to the Rotman Management magazine, Rotman Insights Hub, or attend a Rotman event.

Written by Kristy Strauss | More Student Stories »