Edmonton celebrated its women entrepreneurs — let’s work to give all women the same opportunities
By Joel Magalnick
Edited by Aaron Budnick
COVID-19 has certainly been tough for everyone. It interrupted best-laid plans, turned our worlds upside down, and created uncertainty that will have a generational impact, in particular on women and minorities. According to a study by Statistics Canada, between March and October 2020, 46% of people in Canada with incomes lower than $40,000 lost income compared to 27% of Canadians with incomes over $40,000. Many people in those lower income strata are women. So what can we as an innovation community do to let in the women who have otherwise been unable to find support that can lead to reasonable chances of success?
“Women have traditionally borne greater responsibility for child care and other domestic duties than men and these responsibilities may be exacerbated by the current environment, particularly with school closures and reduced availability of social services, such as child care and eldercare,” the Statistics Canada report noted.
Even as in-person school resumed in September in many communities, “70% of mothers reported that they worked less than half their usual hours compared with September 2019.”
Layna Haley, executive director of the Kaleo Collective, an Edmonton-based nonprofit that serves single mothers and their children, told us that she sees these statistics play out on a daily basis.
“Pretty early on, women were able to keep their jobs,” Layna said. “But as the pandemic went on, companies started to downsize or reduce hours or eliminate positions completely.”
That of course created further financial insecurity and the competition for available jobs has increased—with employment often going to employees without, as Layna noted, “the added pressure of having to be able to be more flexible in her work life, particularly if childcare becomes an issue like when children were taken out of school again.”
We as a community need to model the camaraderie we’ve developed among us to continue to open up opportunities for women and minorities to enter the innovation economy. We’re seeing it already through programs like Ladies Learning Code at Startup Edmonton, for example, but at the same time we need to make room for people in difficult situations not only as a point of entry but as voices that make us think differently. Our economies are strongest when everyone is given an equitable opportunity to take risks, or test innovative new ideas or ways of doing things.
That said, we do have something to celebrate. Recently, a group of local entrepreneurs took it upon themselves to establish and build Edmonton’s first Startup Community Awards. What’s most notable is the representation of women who led the list of winners. In particular, (and somewhat selfishly), we’d like to highlight the Volunteer of the Year. Gail Powley is a member of the Rainforest Steering Committee and a tireless advocate and champion of the innovation ecosystem. Though Gail graciously gives her time to us, she also gives so much to other community initiatives including the Edmonton Regional Innovation Network, the University of Alberta, and TechnologyAlberta where she lead the creation and execution of their FIRST Jobs Program. As a chemical engineer herself, Gail is also a tireless advocate for bringing women into scientific careers.
Other particularly notable winners of the awards include Community Champion of the Year Ashlyn Bernier for her work with EACOS, Laurie Wang as Connector of the Year for her role modelling this important and often undervalued skillset and seasoned leaders such as Myrna Bittner from RunWithIt Synthetics, who won Most Edmonton Startup of the Year. Incidentally, 70% of RunWithIt’s staff consists of women, many of whom are also Black and Indigenous as well. Finally, we should recognize Kristina Milke as Mentor of the Year. None of us can be truly successful without great mentors like Kristina to help make the unknown known and prevent the avoidable.
There’s still plenty of work to be done, but upskilling and technology training programs can help to bring disadvantaged populations to a place where they contribute to and even lead—if we work to actively open those opportunities.
“I feel like there is a path forward there and more flexibility to do your studies at night when [children are] sleeping or to do it if they're in school,” said Layna. “To be able to work from home, to learn from home, has been an advantage right now.”
It’s a good sign of progress toward a more equitable society and ecosystem that helps to create opportunity for anyone, from any background, to prosper right here in Alberta. But we’ve still got a long way to go.
By Ruthann Weeks, Principal Consultant at harmony in the Workplace
You may have heard of the concept of psychological safety and its importance in creating environments of interpersonal risk taking to express thoughts, opinions, and ideas? It is about celebrating mistakes as learning opportunities, without any blaming, shaming or finger pointing. This level of radical trust is imperative in creating improvements and efficiencies. It’s also the breeding ground for the innovation the tech industry thrives on.
The Canadian Mental Health Commission has developed the National Standard, a set of voluntary guidelines for the implementation of organizational psychological safety. One of the standards is psychological support, meaning employees are valued and receive support regarding personal stressors and mental health issues. During Mental Health Week, which runs this Monday, May 3 through May 9, let’s focus on creating organizational cultures that thrive and provide support in practical ways.
With this grueling pandemic disruption, we are experiencing a mental health crisis. Current estimates suggest the stress effects will last three to five years, and longer for some who have lost family members, businesses, and livelihoods. We are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat. While some of us may be living our best lives right now—working from home, avoiding commutes, saving on parking—others of us are trying to work in small apartments around kids sent home from school and partners laid off from their jobs. A few of us might be single, living alone, and struggling with isolation for the first time in our lives.
Although we need to be physically distanced to stay safe, we do not need to be remain socially distant. We can quite successfully check in and stay connected online, by phone, or on text or social media. Let us be intentional about checking in authentically with co-workers, neighbours and loved ones. We are all in this together.
By Aaron Budnick and Joel Magalnick
When building a company, like when building community, trust is often a currency more valuable than money. But trust is a two-way street. In The Rainforest, our culture is defined by the Social Contract. As the social contract states, “I will give trust to others before expecting to receive trust in return.” At the same time, the tenet of honesty also comes into play: “I will be truthful and frank. I will break rules and call out elephants in the room.”
How does breaking the rules lead to a culture of trust? Doesn’t that seem counterintuitive? Well, no. We are innovators—by definition we challenge the status quo to improve the lives of ourselves and others. We don’t do this alone, and we can only succeed by building—and upholding—trust in our circles of engagement with others. The more our own circles can overlap with others’, the bigger our ecosystem becomes, and that creates our culture of trust.
In The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley, authors Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt quote Francis Fukuyama, who wrote that a “modern society may be thought of as a series of concentric and overlapping radii of trust” that can range from friends or friend groups to non-governmental organizations or religious groups: “Traditional societies are often segmentary, that is, they are composed of a large number of identical, self-contained social units like villages or tribes. Modern societies, by contrast, consist of a large number of overlapping social groups that permit multiple memberships and identities.”
Because, as Fukuyama notes, “in-group solidarity reduces the ability of groups members
to co-operate with outsiders,” the “weak ties” among these overlapping segments actually create strong associations to pass on information between one another, allowing for further innovation—and trust.
The ability for an ecosystem like Edmonton’s to create trust among one another allows individual organizations to grow and let in entrepreneurs who may have been previously sidelined. Alberta Enterprise’s just-released 2021 Alberta Technology Deal Flow Study highlights that 27 percent of startups in the province have at least one female founder and half of Alberta’s companies have at least one minority founder. The numbers for women have doubled since the last Deal Flow Study of 2018, which didn’t even include minorities in its statistics. A culture of trust will continue to open doors and reduce marginalization of groups for a more diverse startup ecosystem.
Culture is the foundation of any innovation ecosystem. That culture can be defined by leaders in a community or grow organically—the more strategically and carefully nurtured, the better the results. Any community’s shared values, and the actions of its members, will ultimately determine the success of new initiatives. Here in Alberta, The Rainforest Social Contract sets the expectations for behaviour and is reinforced when each member acts accordingly—that’s why we continue to push for buy-in. While the Social Contract intends to create community, each person signs as an individual, not on behalf of an organization.
Coming back to Fukushima’s concentric and overlapping radii of trust, Hwang and Horowitt write that “the rate of innovation increases when people can create bridges outside of their normal circles of trust, whether across geographies, cultures, social groups, or languages.” The center of that circle would generally be family, extending out to close friends, then the rest of the world, with trust decreasing at each level. They suggest that moving from this simplistic model to overlapping circles creates that potential for a culture of trust we need to grow our ecosystem.
Management guru Stephen Covey makes a similar case of building up trust:
"If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve,” he writes. “Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to. I can even make mistakes and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it.”
Trust removes obstacles. Trust enables greater transactional velocity—a must as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. Trust creates a win-win situation for everyone. We know our province has potential to be a leader on the world’s entrepreneurial stage. We’re beginning to see the fruits of our efforts. Let’s thoughtfully build our culture of trust so we can work together toward a more robust ecosystem.
How will you contribute to a culture of trust? A small step might be to sign the Social Contract, but a bigger step is to live it demonstrably. This is harder than it sounds, and every one of us will stumble and struggle at times. The power of the community is ultimately how it helps its members when they are down. Edmonton’s strength has always been the way that the community supports its most vulnerable, it’s most disadvantaged, and it’s members when they are in need. This is exemplified by the staggering number of non-profits and charities in the city provided through ecosystems like our local innovation community—and by the daily conversations that happen, founder to founder, to share war stories, celebrate triumphs, and overcome obstacles through peer mentorship.
We’re proudly Edmontonian, and proudly members of the local innovation ecosystem. We’re proud to work to support innovators in any way we can. If you need help, a shoulder to cry on, or an introduction, let us know. We’re here for you!
By Joel Magalnick
Alberta’s natural resources have long made us the wealthiest province, but it’s very likely we will be overtaken by other provincial economies in the coming years. There are a number of factors for this, but we have another kind of wealth — one in which we can point a straight line from the oil and gas industries to help us get out of these doldrums: that’s the deep scientific knowledge our province has cultivated in chemical, electrical, mechanical, and even agricultural processes.
As the collapse of global oil prices over the past seven years has shown, diversification can help us spread our eggs among many baskets. Whether we’re talking pharmaceutical, geothermal, or even clean tech, Alberta’s deep engineering heritage can and will propel us forward—and it doesn’t have to be at the expense of oil and gas.
Events in the past month show how far Edmonton as a region, and Alberta as a whole, have come in diversifying our economic drivers. On March 11, cleantech took center stage with an investment summit led by Startup TNT and included sponsors such as the Alberta Clean Technology Industry Alliance (ACTIA) and Energy Futures Lab.
“2019 was great, but 2020 oddly enough was even better,” said ACTIA executive director Jason Switzer in his opening remarks at the summit. Alberta’s significant heavy industry and agricultural sectors can take the lead in reducing carbon output, he said. “We’ve got all that it takes to be a global leader in clean technology and we’re going to do what it takes to make that happen.”
Switzer further noted that venture funding has begun to outpace baseline capital, but also cautioned that Canadian start-ups don’t get the same levels of investment as startups in the U.S. and European Union. “That’s a big problem,” he said. “There’s not enough money flowing into these startups, so if they come out, even if they’ve got just as good or even better technology than a startup from California, they don’t have as much money, and that’s oxygen. That’s their ability to fight and win.”
Matt Mayer from Energy Futures Lab noted that reskilling workers in cleantech methods and practices will help to increase Alberta’s standing as a global player. “The lab has been focused on identifying projects that have the potential to significantly shape Alberta and Canada’s energy landscape.”
Some of the emerging companies that participated in the Alberta Cleantech Investment Summit included companies that use AI and machine learning to better understand ground chemistry from space, provide real-time insights on all kinds of data points like weather conditions or IoT device readings to help frontline oil and gas producers become more efficient, and to help manufacturers reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The winner of the evening, SeeO2, epitomizes our province’s deep knowledge and experience that makes it a scientific powerhouse. This mid-stage startup is currently testing a system that reclaims waste gases using specially designed electron-based devices to convert carbon dioxide and steam emissions into carbon monoxide or hydrogen, for example. These gases can then be reused to manufacture highly processed products such as synthetic fuels and construction materials. As SeeO2 ramps up to release a commercially viable product later this year, its reach has the potential to achieve success on a global scale.
As the world eagerly awaits to reopen while we move toward a critical mass of coronavirus vaccinations, pharmaceuticals have become much more visible in the public eye. Our region is clearly playing a role.
“Even before the pandemic, our region had significant assets and competitive advantages for bio tech and biology pharmaceuticals,” Lynette Tremblay, Edmonton Global’s vice president of strategy and innovation, said in the opening remarks of the Commercializing Research and Development panel she moderated on March 22. “The Edmonton region has a strong life-sciences ecosystem that includes chemical and pharmaceutical companies, engineering talent, and all of that manufacturing, early-stage inputs and mid-stage active pharmaceutical ingredients.”
Tremblay said that 17 proposals for Covid-19 vaccines had come out of the University of Alberta alone, and two of those candidates have entered phase-1 clinical trials. “Alberta and Canada really have the opportunity to be at the forefront of this industry,” said panelist John Lewis, founder and CEO of Edmonton-based Entos Pharmaceuticals, one of those two companies hoping to bring the vaccine to market. “We’re hoping that it’s going to be successful and brought to bear on this pandemic for the benefit of Canadians and potentially the world.”
Dr. Jared Davis, president of Providence Therapeutics, the other local company bringing its vaccine to trial, said that the mRNA technology will have important benefits beyond Covid-19—in particular to create personalized cancer vaccines. “In early 2020 we were very close to going into the clinic with a cancer vaccine,” David said. “However, COVID hit. Our plans changed. We very quickly developed a vaccine for COVID using the technology we’d developed over the year for our cancer programs.”
Davis said he expects Providence to complete the phase-1 trial this month.
While we’re still at a point where the innovation coming out of Edmonton and the rest of Alberta is in the tens or hundreds of millions rather than the billions from fossil fuel extraction. But the more we continue to put value on scientific ventures, the more quickly we’ll see exponential investment and growth—and attract more big players. “You look at the big health centers in the world, they’ve got a lot of competitors all in one compact space,” Davis said. “It’s all really helpful. We can feed on each other and grow together.”
This week’s LWOL featured a discussion about the importance of Corporate Governance in startups. You can watch the full recording here and the comment log is available on our Slack channel.
The session was hosted by Calgary Community Manager Brigitte and Co-Hosted by Edmonton's Steering Committee Member and Entrepreneur Ruthann! This happened to also be anti-bullying awareness day and Ruthann was showing her support with a pink shirt; she's always a champion for great causes!
Professor of Entrepreneurial Finance at the U of C and is the Academic Director for CDL Rockies.
CEO of Swirlex, and an MBA graduate from the Haskayne School of Business.
The Rainforest is all about taking risks and learning new ideas and concepts, so take a risk and learn something new today!
This week’s LWOL featured Product Calgary and a discussion about Product Management. You can watch the full recording here and the comment log is available on our Slack channel. The session was hosted by Calgary Community Manager Brigitte and Co-Hosted by Edmonton's Steering Committee Chair and Entrepreneur James!
Martin L’Heureux - Panel Host
Martin is a co-founder of Product Calgary and started his career as a developer with a taste for strategy who moved into business analysis and later product management. He has a passion for understanding customer needs that powers his teams to deliver extraordinary experiences.
Christa is VP of Product at Morgan Stanley where she works with FinTech’s and Non-Profits.
Ali is the Product Management Lead at 7Shifts, a startup that helps restaurant owners manage their shift scheduling.
Miche started her product management career at Alta ML but recently joined Sylvester AI as their Venture Lead. They use machine learning to help identify pain in felines using facial recognition.
Note: We’ll us the abbreviation PM to refer to the career of Product Management, the action of Managing a Product, and the individual with the job title Product Manager. If this isn’t clear enough in context, we’ll write it out.
What is Product Management NOT?
What’s the advice to a founder thinking of hiring a PM?
This post is an aggregation of year in review posts we've made in the past. Read on to see where Rainforest has been and how we've evolved over time in Edmonton!
Orignally shared in the Rainforest Pulse in September 2018, the following post discusses how innovation requires teamwork to make the dream work.
The importance of Teamwork in the Innovation Process
Innovation is not a brilliant idea; it is a process. A brilliant idea becomes an innovation when it is monetized into a product or system that produces significantly improved results for an end-user or customer. The process of innovation takes an idea from a thought, to a commercialized product.
Many organizations fail at innovation because leaders don't understand that innovation is a multi-step process, and the talents required at each step of the process are very different. For innovation to succeed, it needs to be a team-based process.
In the book The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley, authors Hwang and Horowitt describe innovation as "body contact sport". Like any sport, a team wins or losses based on the actions of the individual members, each specialized for their role, and how well they act together towards a shared outcome. Similarly for innovation, where commercialization of an idea requires individuals from diverse backgrounds and with unique skillsets who together can create something greater than themselves. The researcher cannot succeed without the marketing expert, the sales expert, the human resources experts, nor the customer service experts.
Orignally shared in the Rainforest Pulse in August 2018, the following post discusses the value of Honesty when challening the norm.
The importance of Honesty in the Innovation Process
"If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve. Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to. I can even make mistakes and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it. My communication may not be clear, but you'll get my meaning anyway. You won't make me "an offender for a word." When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective." - Stephen Covey
Technology has created a more global, connected world. This has lead to ever shrinking geographical distances, increasing the opportunity for innovation. At the same time, humans have not developed the skills necessary to deal with the vast social distances between communities and cultures. Innovators, though more connected, have a more difficult time building trust and collaborating.
Rainforest focuses on bringing together people who are different, unlike traditional clusters that focus on bringing together people who are similar. This is necessary to bridge these social distances, by encouraging interactions of diverse thoughts and disciplines. This is built upon trust that can only happen when all individuals are open and honest. After all, a business person and an academic might be the perfect fit "on paper", able to bring more value to a partnership than either could accomplish alone, but without honest dialogue, trust, and transparency, neither can achieve these benefits.
Orignally shared in the Rainforest Pulse in July 2018, the following post discusses the value of Paying it Forward when building innovation ecosystems.
Why is Listening so important to Innovation in Alberta?
Listening is a fundamental interpersonal skill; without it, communication is at best superficial. In the context o innovation, listening is a crucial skill. Adept listeners ask questions like "what problem are we really solving", "is this the right problem to be solving", or "what are the possible unintended consequences of our proposed solution", and they actively listen, rather than cosmetically listen, to the answer. Listening can generate real change, produce unexpected outcome, and foster real innovation.
There are 5 levels of listening, the lowest level being cosmetic listening and the highest level being emergent listening. Members of the Rainforest practice at least Empathetic listening - that is they listen to understand, not simply to respond.
"Connecting to the emerging future – to a future possibility that links to your emerging self; to who you really are." - Otto Scharmer, Presencing Institute
To master the art of listening to understand, try these tips:
Covey first recommends taking time to listen to yourself and understand your own core goals and values. This is a necessary step to as it allows you to consult your own values and goals before acting. Next, Covey recommends listening to others in order to become aware of the values and goals of others. This enables you to find common ground and thus maintain productive relationships. Habit 5 - Seek First to Understand is built upon empathetic listening, a skill Covey considers essential to effective communication. Covey emphasizes the power of going beyond mechanical responses of conversational listening but to instead feel what the speaker is feeling. Covey, as others, believes that the only way to establish communication in some professional and personal situations is by becoming, in small part, the person you are listening to.
We are all capable of seeing the world through the eyes of another, but most of us do not deliberately try to do so. Covey notes that it takes time and practice to learn this skill, but the reward is a whole new level of communication and problem solving. By acquiring the ability to see a situation simultaneously from multiple points of view, members of the Rainforest are able to truly innovate but truly understanding the needs of their end users, customers, or supply-chain.