Gabrielle Scrimshaw has kept the mementos sent to her over the years by her “uncle” Wayne Dunn (really, her father’s cousin) during his travels around the world. There’s a clay flute from Peru and linen pants from Africa. Perhaps most important, there’s also a postcard that Dunn, the first high school dropout ever admitted to the Sloan Master’s Program, sent to her from Stanford in 2005 while he was visiting his alma mater.
The front is a shot of Memorial Church at dusk, and on the back, there’s a single sentence. “It’s all here waiting for you!” wrote Dunn, who went on to co-found an underwater logging company.
The message helped open a world that Scrimshaw, then 17, hadn’t known she could access.
The Native American grew up outside a reservation in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan (population 800) as a member of the Dene community, and money was tight. In the early part of her artist father’s career, he would sometimes trade his work for groceries so his three children could eat. The younger Scrimshaw, a good student, worked scooping ice cream at a local shop. But when it came time to apply for college, there wasn’t enough money to pay the application fees.
She sent an application to the one place that waived the fee for her, the University of Saskatchewan, and was accepted. After graduation, she moved to Toronto, worked at the Royal Bank of Canada in a graduate leadership program — serving as the program’s first associate who didn’t hold a graduate degree — and launched a nonprofit, the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada, dedicated to advancing aboriginal leadership across Canada in the private, public, and social sectors.
But before she undertook that stint in banking and before she started the nonprofit, she talked to Uncle Wayne about the future and where her talents might be best put to use. Stanford was still on her radar, and Wayne encouraged her to pursue it.
“My last year of university, I flew to California to visit the Stanford campus. I remember walking around and feeling so at home and inspired,” she says. “And I felt like an impostor. I knew I wanted to be there. I knew I wanted to get there one day. I thought, ‘This is a place where I can learn and grow.’ ”
In 2015, Scrimshaw was mulling where to apply for graduate school. Stanford Graduate School of Business was at the top of her list. Once she was accepted and packing for her move to California, she once again found Wayne’s postcard.
“It was a reminder that the seed of the idea that took 10 years to come to fruition came from a 50-cent stamp and a dollar postcard,” she says. “He dreamt bigger for me and gave me the permission to do that for myself.”
Scrimshaw, 29, just finished her MBA at Stanford GSB as part of a dual-degree program with Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where she will resume her studies in the fall. When she completes her education in May 2018, she hopes to work for herself and employ others, too. While she’s still kicking ideas around, she says, she thinks she wants to focus on Native American issues.
“When I was trying to decide about my future, Wayne would say to me, ‘Trust that the same luck, hard work, and attitude that got you here will get you where you need to go.’ He had no university education, no high school, and he only applied to Harvard and Stanford,” Scrimshaw says. “I don’t want to sound dramatic, but there are small gestures that can be such big moments for people.”
Wayne’s postcard was one of those small gestures, and it changed the course of Gabrielle Scrimshaw’s life.