John Montalbano was in his midteens when he first felt the barrier of having a diverse background.

The son of Italian immigrants spent his youth comfortably mixing with kids from different cultures at school and on the sports fields of East Vancouver. His dad was a janitor and his mother worked in a restaurant to help support the family - jobs not unlike the parents of his peers.

Then he took a part-time job and started playing soccer in the wealthier neighbourhood of Kerrisdale. While Kerrisdale was only about five kilometres west from his home, Montalbano felt like the poor, immigrant kid in this upper-class community - a different world from the one in which he was raised.

“It was nothing anyone ever did to me. It was something I woke up one day and felt,” recalls Montalbano. “It had a profound impact on my confidence for a number of years. Some of the things that came naturally seemed unnatural because I was out of my comfort zone.”

Montalbano overcame his insecurities, aggressively pursued a career in finance. Today, he is CEO of RBC Global Asset Management Inc., a division of the Royal Bank of Canada that manages nearly $300 billion on behalf of individual and institutional investors globally. He attributes his impressive career trajectory to having mentors and sponsors who held strong beliefs that success is possible for people of all backgrounds.

That vision is behind his just-announced $2-million gift to establish the Montalbano Professorship in Leadership Studies: Women and Diversity at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.

The professorship will enhance learning and engage the community in a discussion around diversity in leadership, including women and people from different cultural backgrounds. The objective is to influence perceptions and practice in business, both at home in Canada and around the world.

“Despite all the best intentions by the world’s leading organizations, women and minorities are still not finding their way to leadership roles in acceptable numbers,” says Montalbano, who has a Bachelor of Commerce with Honours from UBC and is a Leslie Wong Fellow of the UBC Portfolio Management Foundation. “If we can solve for this in Canada, it becomes a competitive advantage.”

Today he serves as the Chair of the Finance Committee for the Board of Governors at UBC and is on the Sauder Faculty Advisory Board. He is also on the board of UBC’s Bureau of Asset Management.

The professorship program will generate leading research and will be a forum to disseminate new ideas to the academic community and general public through various channels including reports, public lectures and social media.

Sauder has committed to secure additional resources to support and enhance the work of the professorship and increase its impact. That includes scholarships for PhD and MBA students as well as a fund to support outreach activities.

His employer, RBC Wealth Management, has agreed to support the outreach program through a $125,000 sponsorship gift.

For Sauder, the professorship program is an important first step towards its ultimate goal of a permanent endowed centre for leadership studies.

“If we are successful, we will touch so many people at so many different levels,” says Montalbano.

The timing is right for the professorship, says Montalbano, as a growing number of studies show diversity is key for global competitiveness.

“I think it’s a very exciting time for people of diverse backgrounds to get into business,” he says. “The world is hyper competitive, you need great leaders, you need great executives, you need creative thinkers. The ability to attract and retain those type of leaders will be wholly dependent on the type of infrastructure you build to support growth within the organization.”

The donation is the latest in a long list of contributions Montalbano and his family are making to the Vancouver community. Montalbano is a founding director of the Take a Hike Youth at Risk Foundation, a program run out of his alma mater, John Oliver Secondary School, which gives troubled teens a chance at getting their lives back on track.

He is also a trustee of the Killam Trusts, which is largely devoted to scholarships at the graduate and postgraduate levels awarded at Killam institutions in Canada. Montalbano is also an investment committee member for the Canada Council for the Arts.

His wife Dana Montalbano also serves on the boards of the Community Arts Council of Vancouver and Arts Umbrella, a not-for-profit centre that supports arts education for kids. She also takes their two young sons, ages 6 and 8, to volunteer at the Crabtree Corner Family Resource Centre on Fridays when they don’t have school.

“Among our family, we are really trying to develop a culture of giving,” says Montalbano. It’s a lesson Montalbano learned as a young boy from his mother, who was always donating money to various causes, despite their modest family income.

“She really opened the door to empathy for me through her feeling that, although we don’t have much, there are a lot of people who have less and our job is to help,” says Montalbano.

His philanthropic skills were sharpened later in life by his mentors, including businessman Milton Wong as well as Art Phillips, Bob Hager and Rudy North and Dick Bradshaw - founding partners at Phillips, Hager & North Investment Management Ltd., which was acquired by RBC in 2008.

It was also the financial gift Wong, Murray Leith and Michael Ryan provided to fund the UBC Portfolio Management Foundation (PMF) that inspired Montalbano’s decision to donate money towards education and thought leadership at Sauder. As a graduate of the PMF program, Montalbano has first-hand knowledge of how additional resources can change a student’s educational experience.

“That really shaped my view of what universities could do if they have the funding,” he says.

Montalbano is looking forward to seeing the impact his namesake professorship will have on students and future leaders when it comes to championing diversity in business.

“To have research, of such global relevance, done by a leading academic here in Vancouver at the Sauder School is something that excites me greatly,” he says.