Rebecca MacDonald was born in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1953. Her father came from a peasant family, but his genius in mathematics earned him a scholarship to study electrical engineering. MacDonald’s mother came from an affluent family that lost its wealth during World War II and the rise of President Josep Broz Tito.
When MacDonald was very young, she moved with her parents and sister to Belgrade, where her father worked for the government in developing energy resources. Even with regular employment, however, the family was considered poor. They lived in an apartment measuring smaller than 500 square feet, and MacDonald says her mother was never able to accept her reduced circumstances. Instead, she focused her attention on her daughters and demanded nothing short of excellence from them. MacDonald remembers a time when she came home from school having scored 98 percent on a test. “My mother acted as if the world had come to an end,” she says. “From that point on, I made sure I earned only 100s. It wasn’t so much that I was smart; it was that I worked very hard to try to please my mother.”
She was allowed no friends or other social outlets, and she was forced to practice the piano for six hours every day. MacDonald explains that for those who could pass state tests, music lessons and education were free. As a teenager, she had become an accomplished pianist, but she could not perform at a concert level. Her mother ended the music lessons and told her she would go into medicine. The day MacDonald completed her medical degree, she decided to run away. She was 22 and still living with her parents in their small apartment. She had never been allowed to make her own choices, she had never had any privacy, and she had never even been on a date. She had led a lonely, repressed life. On her way home from her last day at school, she passed by the Canadian Embassy and spontaneously went inside to see if they would accept her as an immigrant.
MacDonald left a letter for her parents and took the first nonstop flight to Canada, which landed in Toronto. She had savings of a few hundred dollars, but she could speak no English and knew no one in her newly adopted country. She tried to find a job where she could use her medical knowledge, but she discovered that her lack of English and her being a woman were insurmountable obstacles. She went to work as a secretary during the day and attended school at night to learn English. Four years later, in 1979, she met and married Pearson MacDonald.
In 1989, MacDonald read that Canada was going to deregulate its energy sector. Seeing this as a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity, she went to the library to research the buying and selling of natural gas, and then she formed Energy Marketing, Inc. Her company eventually became one of Ontario’s largest natural gas retailers. Just as she made her first $1 million, however, her husband was killed in a car accident. Devastated, she pledged that she would focus her attention on her two young children and her business, which she sold at a profit in 1995. Two years later, MacDonald founded Energy Savings Income Fund (later known as Just Energy Group), which eventually supplied nearly two million customers in Canada and the United States. In 2001, she became the first woman in Canada to take a company public, but in the midst of her business success, MacDonald was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. To help others with this debilitating disease, she financed the Rebecca MacDonald Centre of Arthritis and Autoimmune Disease wing at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.