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A Key to Canada’s Tech Sector … And Why The Feds Cannot Screw It Up

When the issue of immigration in the technology sector is discussed, most reflexively think of the so-called war for talent and role of skilled engineers from around the world in filling shortages. While this is valid, it only scratches the surface of the importance of immigration to the Canadian tech sector. For that one needs to look at companies, present and past, such as Shopify, Wattpad, Applyboard, Blanclabs, Broadband TV, Mitel, Corel, Newbridge, ATI, Redknee, Dalsa, Platform, Futurecom, Intelligent Mechatronics (IMS), Aastra, Research in Motion (Blackberry), Hummingbird, Matrox, Sigma Systems, JDS, Consultronics and on and on and on. What these companies have in common is a founder who was first generation in Canada. Yes, every single one of these companies was conceived, launched and grown by entrepreneurs born elsewhere. And the list of second generation entrepreneurial companies is even longer. According to the Innovation Economy Council of Canada, 34.7% of all early-stage entrepreneurs are first- and second-generation immigrants

Entrepreneurial businesses are born of opportunity or need. There is a wealth of literature on immigrant entrepreneurs, their drive to prove themselves, to succeed, their willingness to sacrifice to create the future they seek. First generation immigrant entrepreneurs start their businesses on average three years younger than the overall population of founders. Some say that immigrants have a higher tolerance for risk, having already taken considerable risk uprooting their families and moving to a new land. Whatever the motivation, the benefits to Canada’s tech sector has been massive.
The role of immigrants in creating great Canadian businesses came to mind when I recently drove through the town of Batawa, Ontario. I immediately thought of Thomas Bata the Czechoslovakian-born cobbler who became ‘shoemaker to the world’ and who built Batawa as a planned community around his greenfield Bata Shoes plant. When Mr. Bata died a number of years ago, I recall reading story after story about his entrepreneurial spirit. For example, to determine whether to expand his growing company into Africa, he and one of his senior executives traveled to the dark continent on a scouting mission. It was agreed that the manager would travel down one coast recording his observations while Mr. Bata would do the same down the other. They agreed to meet back in Canada, compare notes and make a decision. On returning, the manager reported that the prospects in Africa were dismal. The total market was much too small with less than 10% of the total population even wearing shoes. He suggested revisiting the idea of African expansion in five years. Meanwhile Mr. Bata returned with an altogether different view. As Mr. Bata stated, ‘This is one of the greatest opportunities in the history of our company. The possibilities are endless…we have to move now….think about it, no one even wears shoes yet over there”. The company proceeded to build not one but a many local factories across the continent and over the next ten years grew to became one of the largest shoe companies in the world.

As the Canadian government trumpets it commitment to enhanced immigration while concurrently seemingly struggling with the execution of that same commitment across every segment, let us hope that that Canada does not cease to be a destination of choice for those future entrepreneurs we so desperately need more of.

About The Author

Robert Hebert, Ph.D., is the Managing Partner of Toronto-based StoneWood Group Inc, a leading executive search firm. He has spent the past 25 years assisting firms in the technology sector address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Dr. Hebert holds a Masters Degree in Industrial Relations as well as a Doctorate in Adult Education, both from the University of Toronto.