At the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto, the event’s director, Shaun Francis WG03, stepped up to the podium to present medals for the Men’s Shot Put competition. It wasn’t the ceremony he was originally supposed to preside over, but the schedule change turned out to be a serendipitous moment. He draped an award around the neck of Ivan Castro, a blind U.S. Army veteran who Francis first met four years earlier. A Special Forces soldier, Castro lost his sight in Iraq to a mortar and returned to duty 17 months later, serving as one of only three blind active duty officers in the U.S. Army before retiring in January.
“It was really cool that I ended up giving a bronze medal to someone I met before the Games were created,” says Francis. “He’s a super inspiring guy.”
The same could be said of Francis, who was the driving force behind Canada’s hosting the Invictus Games—an international multi-sport competition for wounded veterans and armed services personnel founded by Prince Harry. Francis, 47, has made a career as chair and CEO of Medcan, a Canadian health care services company, and chair of EHE, a preventive health and wellness organization. He’s also long been a champion of veterans’ causes. Francis attended the United States Naval Academy and became its only Canadian graduate since World War II. Following 9/11 and the United States invasion of Afghanistan, he got involved in philanthropy to support U.S. veterans. But when Canada entered the war in 2003, he found that there was virtually no money being raised for wounded Canadian service members, of which there were many. He lamented the lack of charities for Canadian vets with then-commander of the Canadian military General Rick Hillier, who challenged him to take action.
In 2009, Francis held the inaugural True Patriot Love gala dinner, which raised over $2 million for veterans’ causes, in response to that challenge. The gala’s success led him to create the True Patriot Love Foundation, Canada’s largest charity for military veterans and their families. The foundation soon garnered special interest from the Royal Family, and in 2013, Prince Harry invited Francis to the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, where Francis met future shot-put medalist Castro.
Inspired by what he saw there, Prince Harry, a veteran himself, shared with Francis his desire to create an international Paralympics for injured service members, which he would come to call the Invictus Games. Following the success of the inaugural Games in London in 2014, the Invictus Games Foundation invited other countries to submit bids to host future Games. Francis and True Patriot Love led the bid to bring the 2017 Games to Toronto.
“The point of the Invictus Games is to profile the fact that we have these injured soldiers, and they’re going to continue to be a generational commitment for us,” says Francis. “We want to keep the message alive that, hey, when someone is injured at 25, they still need support at 35, 45, 55.”
The eight-day competition, which took place from September 23 to September 30 and hosted 550 injured soldiers from 17 countries and 75,000 spectators, was the largest event ever staged by Canadians for their military. But making the Games a reality was no small feat. Francis put his Wharton knowledge to the test raising seed capital, which included convincing then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper to commit $10 million to the Games.
“[At Wharton], you learn a lot about leadership and what it takes to start a business. And I think you put all those same skills to work in a not-for-profit,” he says. “You’re expected to have a massive profitability margin because people want to see most of their money going to work. So you really have to put all your business principles into action.”
Francis says the Invictus Games founder was “over the moon” at the Toronto event’s success. “His biggest concern was that it would be about him,” he says of Prince Harry. “It’s a fine edge between bringing your global celebrity to a cause and having the global spotlight be on it instead of on you. And for Harry, he didn’t want to overshadow the true celebrities, the wounded warriors.”
Even though the Toronto games are over, Francis says his work is just beginning: “The real work starts here in Canada. We want to use the momentum of the Games to really make sure we get the profile of our Canadian warriors high and help take our charity to the next level, so that’s my priority. I love the cause. I love the people.”