The Contribution of Immigrants to Canada's Tech Sector

July 8, 2008

It is election time. And while politicians dole out promissory notes on every street corner, the tech sector stands in line. What will it be? More funding, better tax treatment, fewer regulations or heaven forbid, how about a government that actually purchases from early staged companies? Whatever the promises that ensue, one issue that will invariably be raised is immigration. Unfortunately, it is far more important than the attention it is likely to receive.

Whenever the issue of immigration in the technology sector is raised, most reflexively think of the so-called war for talent and the supply/demand imbalance of engineers and programmers. While this is a critical concern, it only scratches the surface of the real importance of immigrants to the Canadian tech sector. For that one needs to look at companies such as Mitel, Newbridge, Corel, ATI, Redknee, Dalsa, Platform, Futurecom, Intelligent Mechatronics (IMS), Aastra, Hummingbird, Matrox, Sigma Systems, JDS and Consultronics. What these companies, and scores of others, have in common is a first generation Canadian founder. Every single one of these companies was conceived and started by entrepreneurs who were new to Canada.

What prompted me to think about the contributions of immigrants to the tech sector was the recent death of Thomas Bata, the Czechoslovakian-born cobbler who became ‘shoemaker to the world’ through his Toronto-based Bata Shoes. One obituary described his determination to build a great company while rewarding the confidence which his new homeland had placed in him. As I read this, I immediately thought of other famous immigrant entrepreneurs who built large companies in Canada, such as Robert Shad of Husky Injection Molding, Frank Stronach of Magna, Leslie Dan of Novopharm, Peter Munk of Barrick, the Reichman family and countless others. I then started thinking of some of the famous tech sector immigrants who started or built well-known U.S-based firms such Sergey Brin at Google, Andy Grove at Intel, Charles Wang at CA, Jerry Yang at Yahoo, Vinod Khosla at Sun Microsystems and on and on and on. Taken together, it is a breathtaking who’s who of accomplishment and sector building.

Entrepreneurial businesses are born of opportunity or need. There is a wealth of literature on immigrant entrepreneurs, their drive to prove themselves, their willingness to sacrifice and invest in a better future. 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 have been overwhelmingly positive.

Unfortunately immigration has become contentious. A week does not go by without some reference in the press to immigrant underclasses, migrant workers, ghettos, unrest and the integration challenges of new citizens in some part of the world. Such complexity often breeds political tentativeness and a focus on less difficult issues. But the global movement of talent is highly dynamic and other countries around the world are acting decisively to craft immigration policies that drive the growth of their economies. We have over 900,000 people in queue to enter this country and uncertain political will to deal with them intelligently.

There is a famous, somewhat apocryphal story about Thomas Bata that speaks to the issue at hand. In determining whether to expand his company into Africa, he and one of his senior executives traveled to the dark continent on a scouting mission. The manager traveled down the east coast recording his observations while Mr. Bata traveled down the west. 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. As he stated, ‘There is no way we are not going to sell shoes down there. It is hopeless. Over ninety- percent of the people do not even wear shoes’. But the entrepreneur 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…think about it, no one even wears shoes over there”. The company proceeded to build hugely successful factories across the continent.

Canada’s tech sector needs many more Thomas Batas, Frank Stronachs, and Terry Matthews and we need the political leadership who sees that and will make it a priority.