Tackling challenges where they are: Meet 2024 Troost ILead Difference Maker Award winner, Nelson Lee

Nelson Lee (Year 4 CompE) is the recipient of the 2024 Difference Maker Award (Photo: Elizabeth Intac)

Nelson Lee (Year 4 CompE) is the recipient of the 2024 Troost ILead Difference Maker Award. Once a year, this honour recognizes an exceptional fourth year undergraduate engineering student who has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to leadership development, improving their community, and growing their vision of the future. The award provides $50,000 to the winner to support their continued growth and development.

From an early age, Lee was aware of the challenges that societal divides can impose on an individual’s growth.

“When our family immigrated to Canada, we had a two-bedroom basement unit that we rented for $700 a month,” he says. “Coming from there to being able to attend U of T Engineering goes to show that Canada has those opportunities for people. That really informs the way I think of things, because I personally got to experience that myself.”

By taking these experiences with him, Lee has been able to strive for himself, but also create these opportunities for others. This was his motivation when he served as student council president in high school.

“My high school was in a low-income community, and I tried to elevate my peers and their opportunities and experiences at school to let them know that just because the area was not affluent doesn’t mean that you are not able to do big things,” he says.

Lee currently serves as a governor on the U of T Governing Council and a director on the U of T Student Union.

“I am now in a privileged position having gone through the public education system to getting into the best engineering program that provides all these opportunities,” he says. “For governing council, I see it as a way to give back.”

“For student union, I always thought of it as speaking out for engineering —  we’re a big portion of the school but we’re not the only group of students on campus.”

Lee’s commitment to helping others also extends into his entrepreneurial pursuits. He is the founder and creator of Haven Safe, a campus safety app he built from the ground up.

“At first, it was just about helping my friend. I saw a problem in the world, and I  wanted to see what I could do to move the needle,” he says.

“I never coded a mobile app before. There was a lot of reading documentation, YouTube videos,  it was a process of, ‘OK, what do we need to build?’ Now let’s figure out how we actually do that.”

“It helps when you have $0 at the start of a project because it forces you to be creative and really learn every aspect of it. It was either go learn it or you’re not building it at all.”

Lee began work on Haven during his first year of university, and it has since been adopted by four Canadian universities, including U of T. He sees the Difference Maker Award as an opportunity to offer more value through Haven.

“Essentially all of the prize money is going towards Haven. I think there’s so much that we can do on the features we have, and for myself to build my own skills as a leader,” he says.

Lee hopes to keep developing his engineering skills to tackle more difficult challenges in the future, whether that be in the form of app development or otherwise.

“There are so many solutions I want to design for the world,” he says.

For example, he is interested in building out tangible entrepreneurial supports  to help inspired youths in Canada.

“The more I venture into the world, the more I see how the economy is powered by people who want to use their skillsets to find new ways of doing things, by making things better and more efficient,” he says. “I think there’s a big role the government can play to make that process easier for Canadians. Not just inspiration, but actually figuring out what are some policy things we can do.

In the meantime, Lee’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to just take the first step.

“You really refine your decision-making abilities by putting yourself in positions where you can make a difference,” he says.

“People have ideas every day, but ideas themselves aren’t valuable, taking action is — and you’ll be surprised what comes after.”