Silicon Valley is world-renowned for producing some of the best startups and scaleups on the planet. The Valley is widely regarded as an innovation capital thanks to it being an ecosystem fuelled by talent and underpinned by networks of leaders who have done it before.
While Canadians often fly south to immerse themselves and soak up knowledge, Connection Silicon Valley spotted an opportunity to bring learning north of the 49th parallel and is doing so with a new, exclusive membership service beginning this fall.
Connection Silicon Valley’s Innovation VP Series is a Canadian-only membership service for VPs and directors of Canadian companies. Members get to participate in:
- Quarterly innovation dinners with Silicon Valley’s brightest minds
- Two full-day workshops of curated innovation topics
- Quarterly webinars focusing on emerging trends
“Corporates often get busy with their current business strategy,” Joanne Fedeyko, CEO of Connection Silicon Valley, told DX Journal. “While often that strategy does involve being innovative, executives can really benefit from having more tools and inputs available to them from people who have done it before, or are facing the same challenges.”
Salon-style innovation dinners
The core of Connection Silicon Valley’s Innovation VP Series are the intimate, salon-style dinners. They feature guest speakers from the Valley who will share learnings from the trenches. Fedeyko says the format provides VPs and directors with real-world advice, practical input and recommendations from peers who face similar challenges.
“Collaboration in a real-world and tailored event allows senior leaders to accelerate innovation projects and overcomes obstacles,” Fedeyko said. “Conferences and online articles are important inputs, but leaders have to get out and meet people, and curating the right experience with the right people is what we’ve done with this event series.”
What sets the Connection Silicon Valley VP Innovation Series apart from other networking events is the emphasis on repeated exposure to ideas and people that make Silicon Valley a unique, innovative environment for businesses.
Fedeyko says many Canadian corporates struggle to find time to make trips to the Valley, so bringing the Valley to Canada in an exclusive, tight-knit setting of VPs and directors leads to a more valuable experience for attendees.
“Incorporating Silicon Valley ideas and the networking it inspires is critical to the innovation of Canadian businesses,” she said.
Inaugural Innovation VP Series
The first event happens on November 26th and will feature a talk from Julian Loren, a serial entrepreneur who most recently led Global Strategy and Partner Solutions at GE. Loren is now CEO of Smart Systems, a consulting company focused on smart solutions.
For Loren, the pressure to adapt and innovate as a business leader has never been more apparent.
“We’re entering an era where the nature of competition is fundamentally changing,” he said. “The disparity between the winner’s rich purse and the loser’s meager scraps will be bigger than it’s been in generations.”
Loren believes the gap between winners and losers is widening as a result of technology and business models that provide new levels of intelligence and adaptability.
“I’m excited to partner with Connection Silicon Valley and share some of my learnings from the past 30 years as a smart-system pioneer, serial entrepreneur, and ecosystem builder,” he said.
Fedeyko has hosted and designed salon-style network events for several years, and she says attendees appreciate the intimate setting, ability to grow their network, and learn from people who have vastly different experiences and are willing to share their successes and failures.
“Innovation doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “Bringing in more people who have global perspectives, and people who have led innovation projects at large multinational organizations provides practical lessons that Canadian corporates have asked for.”
Any director- or VP-level business leader interested in joining the Innovation Series can apply through the Connection Silicon Valley website. Later this fall, Connection Silicon Valley is also launching an Executive Series designed for the corporate C-suite.
#ScaleStrategy Q&A: Borrowell’s Co-Founder on Why Scaleups Need Values More than Culture
Eva Wong discusses how the credit and fintech company keeps applying their values to support growth.
“I remember having a half hour conversation about building a sales team with our OneEleven office neighbour. He took me into a board room and wrote out everything that he learned and the mistakes he made in the nine months it took to build out his team. That’s just one example of our first value: humility. Admitting there’s someone 15 years younger who’s been in business way less than I have been, but who knows way more about this than I do,” she recalls.
Wong says values and the culture that emerges from them can help companies scale by bypassing cumbersome process and bureaucracy that can slow growing organizations. As Borrowell has grown from 4 to 45 employees, Wong says she has learned that values are more fixed — and crucial — than culture.
“In the early days, we talked about culture fit. Now we talk much more about culture contribution. [New team members] don’t have to fit into the existing culture. As we grow and change, the culture will too. The values are more important to hold true to,” she says.
Recently, John Ruffolo, the chief executive officer of OMERS Ventures, caught up with Wong to discuss why scaleups need to pay close attention to culture, how it impacts hiring and how to scale it as the company grows.
John Ruffolo: Why is culture so key for scaleups?
Eva Wong: There’s a really popular quote that says “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture is what keeps larger companies agile. If people don’t intuitively do the right things on their own, you have to add process and that slows companies down. For us, as we grow, a really strong culture involves ensuring people understand how they help us continue to scale in a way that avoids bureaucracy.
Ruffolo: How would you describe the culture at Borrowell?
Wong: Culture isn’t about perks. It’s not about things we do for fun. Or how the company has shared interests. For us, it’s clearly tied to our values. Our values are:
- We’re high-performing and humble.
- We’re trustworthy and team-oriented.
- We love learning.
- Act like owners.
- Diversity makes us better.
Ruffolo: When the initial team came together, did all of you share those values?
Wong: I don’t think it was as explicit. When you come together as co-founding team, you just click. It was more implicit. We did read the Netflix culture deck and said “that’s what we want our culture to be!” We knew we’d have to articulate it one day because people were asking what our culture is and we wanted to be consistent in how we described it.
Ruffolo: How did the culture shift as you grew from 4 to 45 employees?
Wong: We didn’t have our values established or written down when we were four people. That came when we were maybe 16 to 20. It was a collaborative, organic, bottom-up approach where we asked employees, ”What’s different about working here than other places you’ve worked?” People shared different things and we came up with the values that way.
But as we continue to grow, culture is naturally going to change and we’re okay with that. It has to change. What we don’t want to change are the values. We want to add people to the company who add to the culture, not necessarily stick in the lanes. We recognize that as we grow and become more diverse those values can manifest differently. We still want people to act like owners, but it just might look different compared to where we were when we started.
One thing our VP Talent, Larissa Holmes, launched within the company is a competency matrix, which explains what behaviours we expect from team members at each level of the organization. For example, if you’re a senior director what does it mean to be ‘high-performing and humble’? It’s also a way for employees to know what competencies are needed to move from a manager to a senior manager to a director and how those things are tied to our values. Employees have to get better at exemplifying the values to move up in the organization.
Ruffolo: Do you think culture is playing a role for talent wanting to work with you?
Wong: One hundred percent it is. A lot of people will check out Glassdoor before they come in, so they already have a sense of our culture and values. We take the interview process seriously as well, since it will be their first real taste of our culture. On Glassdoor, people can actually post reviews of the interview process, even if they’re not hired. There are posts from people who we turned down but who wrote positive reviews of their experience. We try to make sure that people we are interviewing see and meet various team members from different levels within the organization. That’s important to us.
Part of the interview process is doing an assignment, which exemplifies our values as well. It’s not just about who can talk a good game. You have to produce good work, too.
Ruffolo: In interviews, how do you describe your culture to a candidate?
Wong: Like any company, you can put values on a wall. But you need to give specific examples of how you actually live them. Our value ‘act like owners’ is a pretty good way of encompassing us. We really do encourage everyone to think about what they would do to make the whole company successful — to put on their CEO hat and think about what’s best for the business. It encourages people to avoid thinking in a very narrow sense about their role.
Our ‘high-performing and humble’ value is a big part of who we are too. Humility helps us recognize that although we’re all really smart and capable, you can’t just operate as an island. You’re dependant on your teammates, and we need to listen to our customers. Humility allows people to be able to take a step back and have their ideas challenged by others.
Ruffolo: Is there one of your five values that needs to be taken to the next level?
Wong: The value — ‘diversity makes us better’ — is something that we’re working to improve on. Our goal is to have a gender-balanced company, and we’re not there yet. We’re currently at 40%, which is not bad, but it’s not evenly distributed within our company. We’re continuing to track as we grow as a team at different levels and different departments.
Obviously, diversity isn’t only about gender. There are a number of different metrics we measure, including the percentage of employees that are born outside Canada. Since we have this focus on diversity and inclusion, I think we’re more likely to attract and retain diverse talent and to promote people with different backgrounds and experiences.
Ruffolo: Which entrepreneur inspires you the most and why?
Wong: There’s an entrepreneur named Kim Scott who has written a great book called “Radical Candor”. I admire her because she’s been very effective as a business person and operator without losing her humanity. She still cares very much about her team, and I think she would say those two things reinforce each other, whereas some people think you can either be a strong operator or a good person. She said in order to be an effective operator, you have to care about your team and have authentic relationships.
Ruffolo: Are there are books that helped you in your scaleup journey?
Wong: I read a book by Adam Grant called “Give and Take”. He talks about people falling into one of three categories: givers, takers, and matchers. Within givers, there are smart givers and there are pushovers — those who give but not in a smart way. They tend to burnout and get taken advantage of. Of all those groups, those who do the best are the smart givers. At Borrowell, we ask ourselves: “how do I give smart without burning out or being taken advantage of?”
Ruffolo: What is your number one piece of advice for a founder in the scaleup stage?
Wong: Constantly reevaluate what you’re doing and make sure you’re still working on the highest value things. When you’re scaling, things are constantly changing and you have to keep reevaluating your role. Are you spending your time doing the most high value activities?
3 Things to Know About Scaling Culture Through Values
Co-founder and COO of Borrowell on the power of values
As Wong has helped grow Borrowell from a team of 4 to 45, she has learned that being clear on values is more important than maintaining a culture through scale. Culture emerges from a company’s values, she says, and both together help companies avoid the need to create cumbersome process and bureaucracy that can slow down growth.
“Values and culture are what keeps larger companies agile,” she says. “If people don’t do the right things on their own, you have add to process and that slows companies down.”
When Borrowell was first founded, they didn’t have their values written down, says Wong. As they grew, they needed to articulate those same values clearly for the scaling team.
“We first did it when we were about 16 to 20 people. It was a collaborative, organic, bottom-up approach where we asked employees, ‘What’s different about working here than other places you’ve worked?’ People shared different things and we came up with the values that way.”
About a year ago, as growth continued and Borrowell raised another round of funding, Wong and the rest of the management team knew they needed to add one more value: diversity.
“We care a lot about diversity. Checking off a diversity box and getting them in the door isn’t enough. We want diversity of opinions and to retain diverse employees,” she says.
Today, Borrowell’s values are:
- We’re high-performing and humble
- We’re trustworthy and team-oriented
- We love learning
- Act like owners
- Diversity makes us better
For scaleups looking to refine their values and culture, Wong has three key lessons she has learned through the evolution of Borrowell.
1) Values Over Culture
“It’s more about values and less about culture,” says Wong. “We’re open to our culture changing, but want to keep our values consistent.”
In the early says, she says, the founders talked about culture fit, while now they talk about culture contribution. Employees don’t have to fit the existing culture or share the same personalities as current employees because those things will grow and change as the company does.
In fact, Wong wants to see a diversity of culture at Borrowell and is open to seeing their values manifest themselves differently as they continue to grow.
“We want to add people to the company who add to the culture, not necessarily stick in existing lanes. As we grow and become more diverse those values will look different. We still want people to ‘act like owners’, but it just might look different as we grow compared to where we were when we started,” she says.
2) Ask About Values When Hiring
One lesson Wong learned through trial and error was to be explicit in interviews about the company’s values and share what they mean.
“We take the interview process seriously, since it will be a person’s first real taste of our values and culture,” she says. “We embedded our values into the process and we have specific questions we ask during around each of the values to make sure people are aligned with them.”
Part of the interviewing process at Borrowell is to do an assignment, which helps the team see the work a candidate actually produces.
“It’s not just about who can talk a good game,” says Wong. In addition, candidates interview and meet with various people from different levels within the organization who discuss how values are executed throughout the company.
3) Empower Employee Success with Values
Wong and her management team have taken their values one step further in an effort to support the scaling company.
“When we started, people were in contact with the founders every day. But as we’ve grown, that’s less true. So we need to define what each of our values mean at different seniority levels and not just demonstrated by the management team.”
To address this, they launched a competency matrix that defines what skills and behaviours are needed for the values at each level of the organization.
“If you’re a director, what does it mean to be high performing but humble,” she says. “We’re communicating what it takes to move from a manager to a senior manager to a director and what is expected. It’s part of the promotion process. Employees actually have to get better at exemplifying the values to move up in the company.”
Canada’s next big act is training scaleups
By Jack Derricourt & Chris Hogg
The Canadian technology landscape is booming.
Canadian companies took in $2.5 billion in funding in the first half of 2018, the strongest first half since 2000. Corporates have announced large-scale investment plans to invest in innovation and digital technology (CAE recently pegged $1 billion for the efforts) and post-secondary institutions are breaking ground to house future generations of talent (the University of Toronto is building a 14-storey building to be completed by 2021).
The Canadian technology landscape is ripening and readying for an influx and growth of more mature, internationally-focused ventures.
While scaleups make up less than five percent of Canadian companies, they create half of all new jobs in the country.
On September 26 in Toronto, Elevate ScaleUp will seek to provide helpful insights into the problems facing scaling companies. Presented by CIBC and Osler, the event features startup veterans sharing their experiences.
DX Journal spoke with Julia Kassam, Managing Director, CIBC Innovation Banking, to find out more about the next big act in Canada’s innovation space.
DX Journal: With innovation ecosystems forming across Canadian cities, what excites you the most for startups in Canada?
Julia Kassam: From coast to coast, we’ve hit our stride as a community. The Canadian startup ecosystem has never been stronger and it is launching Canada into the global spotlight. Success stories about scaling companies of all sizes, in different industries, are generating the attention of investors and aspiring entrepreneurs. We are gaining a reputation for being diverse, collaborative and competitive.
This means that Canada is no longer an occasional destination, but a critical location for international investors to regularly visit, and for global brands to establish roots and drive their own corporate growth.
DX Journal: Canadian policymakers have made strengthening the venture capital sector a priority, with the launch of Venture Capital Action Plan (VCAP) and Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative (VCCI) underway. What does that mean for startups and scaleups?
Kassam: After years of lobbying by the Canadian Venture and Private Equity Association (CVCA), the previous government took our sector’s advice and launched VCAP as an arms-length funding strategy. VCAP worked as designed; venture capital funds benefited from the capital raised and invested in several early-stage companies. The new funds that should be raised under VCCI will capitalize on that success and strengthen the sustainability of Canada’s venture capital ecosystem.
What this means for entrepreneurs is that the federal government recognizes that VCAP was an appropriate initiative, and that to fuel the innovation economy, companies need a robust venture capital ecosystem to move from startup mode to scaleup mode.
It’s a really strategic and exciting initiative because later-stage capital will help accelerate the growth for companies who need to overcome commercialization hurdles, expand into new markets and compete on a global scale.
DX Journal: Many startups struggle to scale because they don’t have the right senior talent. What is your sense of how well positioned Canada is with experienced leaders?
Kassam: Although Canada has established a reputation for developing world-class academics and innovators, we do need to attract experienced executive talent. Everything moves at an accelerated pace in a scaleup, and the business will bend and flex in ways it never has. Canada needs more leaders who know what it takes to grow globally and ensure scaleups are well-equipped to navigate and accelerate growth.
One big benefit Canada has that helps here is as a result of our proactive immigration policy – the ability for Canadian scaleups to attract skilled talent is getting easier; our country realizes that to keep pace with scaleups, concentrated efforts are needed to establish Canada as a global technology powerhouse.
DX Journal: Canada has also been able to attract tech titans such as Google to open up offices in Toronto. What role do they play in the scaleup economy?
Kassam: They serve as training ground, but also as a competitor for talent. In the best case, people learn what it takes to be part of a leading innovator while being trained by experienced executive talent at the local divisions of firms such as Cisco or Google. For scaling companies, the opportunity to pilot their innovation becomes a realistic opportunity which can flourish into a partnership that may lead to an acquisition. A big opportunity that emerges as a result of large tech companies choosing to set-up an office in Canada is an acceleration of human capital development for the ecosystem.
What we are also seeing more of is that global innovators are setting up their R&D centres in Canada. A great example this summer was Samsung announcing an AI Centre located within MaRS, led by a Toronto-based academic. Again, another opportunity for scaleups to be close to the heart of global innovation. That is huge potential waiting to be unleashed.
DX Journal: How is the Canadian startup ecosystem helping to train talent?
Kassam: Serial entrepreneurs and investors share mistakes and success stories which help shape and accelerate scaleups through collective learning. What truly makes the Canadian tech ecosystem unique is our mindset to foster entrepreneurial spirit; and a great example of how we do that is by bringing the startup community together.
Elevate, Canada’s largest tech festival and one that CIBC Innovation Banking is sponsoring, is the perfect example of creating the right information and network opportunities so that we can collectively benefit from the existing momentum in Canada’s innovation ecosystem and drive our entrepreneurial culture forward.
DX Journal: What’s the next step for the Canadian scaleup story?
Kassam: Canadian scaleups will continue to tackle the unique challenges that come with scaling a business; however, they will think in a global context earlier than ever before. Scaleups need to strategically choose the right capital partners for their growth – ones that open doors to new markets. There needs to be an emphasis on attracting top talent earlier in the growth cycle to help drive international perspectives and opportunities.
To hear more from industry leaders who have scaled real businesses (and have the scars to prove it), get a ticket for Elevate ScaleUp, happening September 26, 2018 in Toronto. Presented by CIBC Innovation Banking and Osler, the event will provide real insights from entrepreneurs and tech veterans who have spent years in the field, on everything from hiring, to financing, to distribution.
DX Journal covers the impact of digital transformation (DX) initiatives worldwide across multiple industries.
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